North Pole Sues Koch-Owned Oil Company Over Contaminated Water

CREDIT: Jason Rossiter

The "Santa Claus House" in North Pole, Alaska.

The city of North Pole, Alaska, used to have clean groundwater. But now, it’s the polar opposite.

According to a lawsuit filed by the city last week, two oil companies are responsible for polluting North Pole’s groundwater and some private drinking water wells with a mysterious chemical. The chemical, called sulfolane, leaked from an oil refinery that the lawsuit alleges was negligently operated — both by current refinery owner Flint Hills Alaska Resources, which is owned by Koch Industries, and former owner Williams Alaska Petroleum.

“The presence of sulfolane contamination in the city’s groundwater has rendered that groundwater unfit for human consumption and endangers the public health or welfare,” the lawsuit reads, according to a report in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “Ultimately, these hazardous substances have migrated off the refinery property and have contaminated the groundwater down gradient of the refinery and within the city, including wells owned by the city and supplying drinking water to the city’s inhabitants.”

Alaska’s North Pole is, of course, not the real North Pole, but it definitely bears the spirit of Christmas. According to the town’s official website, North Pole’s street lights are decorated like candy canes, and buildings are painted with Christmas colors and designs. Streets are given names like Santa Claus Lane, Holiday Rd., Saint Nicholas Drive, and Blitzen. The town has holiday lighting contests, Santa cruises, and sled dog competitions. Every winter, North Pole hires “Santa’s helpers” to respond to thousands of letters that are mailed to the city.

But Christmas spirit is not the only thing inhabiting North Pole. The city has housed the state’s largest oil refinery since 1977, the Earth Resources oil refinery, which connects to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, one of the largest pipeline systems in the world. From 2004 up until now, the refinery has been owned by Koch-subsidiary Flint Hills Resources.

It’s been known since at least 2001 that the refinery was contributing to sulfolane pollution in the North Pole. But in 2009, Flint Hills discovered levels of the chemical that were “significantly higher than expected,” and began notifying homeowners in the surrounding area. It began a process of cleaning up the groundwater, but the costs proved to be too much. Earlier this year, the company announced it would cease operations because of the “enormous” expense of cleaning up the sulfolane.

Flint Hills has maintained that it is not the source of North Pole’s pollution. Instead, it blames the previous owners: Earth Resources of Alaska which owned the refinery until 1980; MAPCO, which owned it until 1998; and Williams Alaska Petroleum, which bought MAPCO and took over the plant until its sale to Flint Hills in 2004. Flint Hills spokesman Jeff Cook told the News-Miner that “the record is clear” on who caused the pollution: and notes that after discovering it, Flint Hills took extreme measures to provide clean water to the city, drilling new water wells “a cost of millions of dollars” and then donating the system to the city, free of charge.

Only Flint Hills and Williams Alaska are listed as defendants in North Pole’s lawsuit, but the city has indicated that more defendants may be added, according to the News-Miner.

Whoever is responsible, the Alaska government has conceded that the pollution is a problem. In a 2013 report on the situation, the state called the situation “unprecedented … due to the distance that sulfolane has traveled in groundwater, and the number of properties affected with private drinking water wells.”

North Pole residents who have been affected have been provided with alternate sources of drinking water, the report said. But right now, it’s unclear how the pollution would affect human health. Alaska’s report said there is “little information” on the human health effects of sulfolane, but notes that residents who drank water contaminated with the chemical were “not likely” to experience negative symptoms. As for long-term effects and toxicity, the Alaska government says it hopes to gain a better understanding in the next four to five years.

Sulfolane is not the only pollutant that has plagued North Pole due to problems at the refinery. According to a 2001 report from Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, while the refinery was owned by Williams Alaska, it had 258 spills of jet fuel, gas, and crude — spills that together totaled 243,306 gallons of oil spilled onto the ground. The number of petroleum spills during that time averaged more than ten every year, excluding the years of 1990 to 1999, when the refinery averaged more than 14 spills every year.