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Davis Refinery decision prolonged by air quality talks

(From left to right) Billings County Commission members Joseph Kessel, Jim Arthaud and Mike Kasian hear a question about the proposed Davis Refinery from an audience member at the Tuesday morning Billings County Board of County Commissioners meeting.

MEDORA -- Stringent air quality standards continue to prolong the planning for an oil refinery proposed just miles from the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

North Dakota Department of Health representatives called in to Tuesday’s Billings County Commission meeting to discuss air quality standards in light of the proposed Davis Refinery project.

The refinery planned by California-based Meridian Energy Group could cost up to $900 million to build, would be able to process 55,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil daily into different distillates and would be located around three miles beyond the edge of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The park is regulated as a Class I area by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act and is subsequently held to the highest enforced standard for air quality, a fact that would require the proposed refinery to pass a thorough permitting process with the North Dakota Department of Health.

“One of the concerns we have is that Meridian wants to build within two miles of a Class I area,” said Terry O'Clair, Department of Health Division of Air Quality director. “In order to do that, they’re going to have to jump through a number of hoops regarding regulations, EPA  air quality regulations as well as those that have been adopted in the state.”

O’Clair said the bulk of North Dakota was regulated as a Class II area, with only a handful of Class I areas -- including the national park -- in which the level of allowed pollutants is tightened.

Craig Thorstenson, an environmental engineer within the division’s permitting and compliance program, said his office would require modelling to be conducted by a consultant to determine the level and disbursement of air pollution that could be expected from a source.

Thorstenson said the permitting process for any refinery would begin with an application, after which the health department would review and provide comments. He described the comment period as a “fairly lengthy process” of up to a year.

“We have to review the modelling that they conduct, we’ll have to make sure they’re applying the best available control technology and then we review the application and come up with a draft permit,” Thorstenson said.

After that, he continued, the draft would go out for public comment in a 30-day period, during which the department would hold a public meeting. Once the public comments are finalized, Thorstenson said his office would respond to those filed and then make a decision.

Meridian has not filed an application for an air quality permit, though initial planning for the refinery aimed for a filing date in May.

After speaking with O’Clair and Thorstenson, as well as fielding questions from the Billings County property owners in attendance, the Billings County Commission closed discussion on the refinery until its next meeting on July 6.

Daniel Hedrington, a representative of the engineering firm Short Elliott Hendrickson -- the company working through the refinery planning and permitting process with Meridian -- said the timeline for the application is yet to be determined.

“Right now, we’re going to get back with our management team and say, ‘OK, because the county is asking for this additional meeting, and this additional public hearing, do you want to hold off until after that meeting or should we submit it prior?’” Hedrington said.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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