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Refinery near ND national park draws thousands of comments prior to permit decision

A rail line runs past the proposed site of an oil refinery in Billings County Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. The Davis Refinery project has attracted criticism for its proximity to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota environmental regulators expect to decide whether to issue an air quality permit to an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park in a couple of months after receiving thousands of public comments that mostly opposed the project through the Friday, Jan. 26, deadline.

The state Department of Health received roughly 11,000 comments by email on the Davis Refinery, although a "vast majority" say the same thing, said Terry O'Clair, the director of the department's air quality division. A spokeswoman for the National Parks Conservation Association, an opponent of the refinery’s location, said they had more than 10,400 people send a letter on the issue but wasn’t sure how many deviated from the provided text.

The department received another dozen comments by regular mail, O'Clair said. They'll weigh the comments, along with arguments made during a public meeting in Dickinson this month, in deciding whether to issue the air permit to the refinery, proposed by California-based Meridian Energy Group.

The health department plans to post the comments online this week, including ones from the National Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the NPCA, O'Clair said.

The refinery would be located just west of Belfield, N.D., and less than 3 miles from the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The draft air permit says the facility will produce gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and liquefied petroleum gas.

The project has faced opposition from conservationists who worry that placing a refinery on the park's doorstep will harm air quality and views in the rugged Badlands of western North Dakota. They have also criticized company officials for avoiding scrutiny from the Public Service Commission.

But Meridian leaders have said that the project will be cleaner and less intrusive than refineries of yesteryear. Local officials, meanwhile, are hoping for a boost in property tax revenues and jobs once the refinery is built.

O'Clair said the health department will focus on comments that get into the details of the emissions reduction technology rather than arguments for or against the project itself. He said there were only about 200 views of the draft permit online.

Still, O'Clair said it was "by far" the most comments they've received on a permit. He predicted it would take a couple of months to make a decision on issuing it.

Although the draft permit refers to the project as having a capacity of up to 55,000 barrels per day to be built in two phases, Meridian's website says it will process 49,500 barrels — or just over 2 million gallons — of Bakken crude oil per day. That's just below the 50,000-barrel-per-day statutory threshold for the PSC's siting review.

During a meeting with the three-member commission last month, Meridian CEO Bill Prentice said their current design is for a 27,500-barrel-per-day facility with the "possibility" of expansion.

Dan Hedrington, senior project manager for the engineering firm SEH, said Meridian hopes to break ground soon after the air permit is issued. He said they look forward to reviewing the public comments.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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