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Environmental groups question refinery near national park

FILE - This July 19, 2018, file photo, shows the property in southwest Belfield, N.D that is the future home The Davis Refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Environmental groups opposing the site of an oil refinery being developed near Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota want a judge to reconsider his recent recommendation that state regulators dismiss the groups' challenge. They accuse the Davis Refinery developer of not updating state officials about revisions to the project. Meridian Energy Group says it had no reason or requirement to do so. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Environmental groups opposing the site of an oil refinery being developed near Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota want a judge to reconsider his recent recommendation that state regulators dismiss the groups’ challenge.

Administrative Law Judge Patrick Ward in a nonbinding ruling last month said the Public Service Commission doesn’t have jurisdiction in the dispute because Meridian Energy Group is planning a refinery with a capacity below a threshold in state law that requires a site permit from the PSC.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center and Dakota Resource Council in recent filings say Meridian didn’t update the state Health Department about its decision to lower the refinery’s capacity below the threshold, indicating the project might end up being larger than the company maintains.

“Meridian’s failure to take steps to update or revise its (Health Department) permit to construct belies its claims,” the groups’ attorneys wrote in documents imploring Ward to reopen the case and allow them to explore the veracity of the company’s stated plans.

Meridian’s initial plans for the $800 million refinery called for a processing capacity of 55,000 barrels per day, above the 50,000-barrel threshold in state law requiring a site permit. The company has since reduced the stated capacity to 49,500 barrels, just under the threshold, but its permit to build from the Health Department still has the 55,000-barrel figure.

Meridian CEO William Prentice has signed an affidavit saying the company has “no current plans” for any expansion beyond 49,500 barrels per day. Meridian attorneys also maintain the company had no reason or requirement to report to state health officials that it was reducing the scope of the project.

“The permit only requires the (Health Department) to review and approve alterations to plans that result in the emission of more or additional pollutants,” they wrote, adding later that “there is no suggestion that a reduction of the Davis Refinery’s operating capacity would result in greater pollutants.”

The environmental groups question that.

“There certainly should not be an assumption that a facility with a slightly lower capacity would lead to less emissions, as decreased size of industrial facilities often corresponds to a decrease in the efficiency of processes,” their attorneys wrote.

The PSC last month decided not to act on Ward’s recommendation that they dismiss the environmental groups’ challenge until he decides on the groups’ request to reopen the case. It’s not known when that decision will come.

Meridian began site work this summer for the refinery 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the park. Opponents fear pollution will mar the park’s scenery and erode the air quality at the state’s top tourist attraction. Meridian disputes that and says the environmental groups are engaging in “a continued effort to stymie progress.” The company hopes to begin operating the refinery in 2020.

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