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North Dakota regulators discuss refinery near national park

In this July 5, 2018, photo, eroded hills are shown in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. North Dakota's Public Service Commission on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, discussed an administrative law judge's recommendation that the regulators dismiss a challenge to the location of an oil refinery being developed near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. One commissioner indicated she'll likely vote to heed the advice, while the other two members didn't immediately indicate their position. Meridian Energy Group plans to build the $800 million Davis Refinery 3 miles from the park. (AP Photo/Blake Nicholson)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s Public Service Commission on Monday discussed an administrative law judge’s recommendation that regulators dismiss a challenge to the location of an oil refinery being developed near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, with one commissioner indicating she’ll likely vote to heed the advice.

The other two members said they will hold off on indicating their position until later.

Meridian Energy Group began site work this summer for the $800 million Davis Refinery just 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the western North Dakota park. The company said the plant will be “the cleanest refinery on the planet,” and supporters believe it will boost the area’s economy.

Opponents, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Dakota Resource Council, fear pollution will mar the park’s scenery and erode the air quality at the state’s top tourist attraction. The two groups in June filed a complaint with the PSC, maintaining Meridian needs a site permit because the refinery’s capacity will be 55,000 barrels per day — above the threshold of 50,000 barrels in state law that triggers a PSC review. Such reviews can take six months or longer to complete.

Meridian maintains the 55,000-barrel figure that it earlier gave to media, investors and government officials is outdated and that the company’s current plan is to build a facility capable of processing only up to 49,500 barrels per day — just below the threshold and outside of the commission’s purview.

Administrative Law Judge Patrick Ward in a Sept. 10 recommendation said the PSC’s jurisdiction under state law is “clear and unambiguous” even if Meridian is trying to circumvent the agency.

“Because the planned capacity is under the jurisdictional threshold … plaintiffs’ complaint must be dismissed,” he said.

Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said she also believes the law is clear.

“To me we don’t have siting jurisdiction,” she said. “They could have come in voluntarily. We urged them to do that. They chose not to. So here we are, and I think that for me, I agree with the judge’s analysis.”

Fedorchak was referring to an informal meeting with company officials held last December to discuss the 49,500 barrel figure. She unsuccessfully implored Meridian at the time to voluntarily go through the siting process.

Ward also said he believes the commission lacks authority to order Meridian to stop work at the site, which the two environmental groups have requested.

The final decisions on both matters are up to the PSC.

Meridian hopes to begin operating the refinery in 2020. The company this summer obtained permission from the state Health Department to begin construction , but the project faces other hurdles, including a legal challenge of a state air quality permit . Meridian has said it is “highly confident” it will prevail in its legal battles.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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