A company developing an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota has supplied adequate information to justify drawing water from an underwater aquifer, State Water Commission officials testified Wednesday.
An attorney for area landowners challenging the recommended permit for the Davis Refinery countered that information from developer Meridian Energy Group has been vague and contradictory.
The water permit is one of several hurdles that Meridian must overcome as it seeks to build the refinery just 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the state's top tourist attraction. Administrative Law Judge Tim Dawson later will issue a recommendation to State Engineer Garland Erbele, whose final decision could be appealed to state court.
The disagreement over the water permit centers around a related dispute over how big the refinery will actually be. Meridian in May 2016 applied for a permit to draw about 645 acre-feet of water per year from the underground Dakota Aquifer for a refinery that would process up to 55,000 barrels of oil per day Large volumes of water are commonly measured by the acre-foot in the U.S. One acre-foot is enough water to cover 1 acre (4,047 sq. meters) of land 1 foot (0.3 meter) deep and equals about 326,000 gallons (271,455 imperial gallons).
The company later reduced the planned oil capacity to 49,500 barrels, just shy of a 50,000-barrel threshold in state law that requires a site permit from the state Public Service Commission. Meridian has denied trying to skirt state law, and state regulators last month concluded that they had no jurisdiction to intervene. Environmental groups that oppose the refinery are challenging that in state court.
Given the reduction in the project capacity, the state engineer's office has recommended that the company be issued a water permit with a corresponding reduction, to about 586 acre-feet annually. Landowner attorney JJ England has argued that the change to the company's request is illegal and that the application should have been rejected.
Area landowners have raised other concerns, including how they might be affected, how much of the water will be wasted during treatment, and how wastewater from the refinery will be handled. Meridian has not applied for a wastewater discharge permit from the state Health Department, according to Water Quality Division Director Karl Rockeman.
Wednesday's hearing centered on whether Meridian will use all of the water for which it has applied for a "beneficial" use. England stressed that Meridian's plans for treating and using the water are vague and at times have conflicting information.
"The state engineer has not established Meridian's intent to the requisite legal standard, and a number of significant questions remain," he told Dawson.
Water Appropriations Division Director Jon Patch and Hydrologist Manager Kimberly Fischer testified that information Meridian has supplied is enough to warrant a conditional water permit that will be fine-tuned after refinery operations begin and its precise water needs are determined.
"If we would approve (the permit), and they ultimately aren't using that amount of water, we would perfect the permit for the amount that they are using and have shown the need for," Patch said.
Meridian began site work in July, a month after receiving an air quality permit from the state Health Department that deemed the refinery a minor source of pollution. Environmental groups are fighting the permit in state court. A hearing is scheduled Dec. 12 in Dickinson.
The groups worry about pollution in the 30,000-acre (12,000-hectare) park that draws more than 700,000 visitors annually. Meridian maintains the refinery will be the "the cleanest refinery on the planet."
(Source: Associated Press)