North Pole Refinery 'belugas' drew fire during high-powered target practice

One of the interesting angles about the long-running legal fight between the former owners of what used to be the North Pole Refinery concerns the sighting of “belugas” in a wastewater lagoon on the complex.

I first learned about this five years ago while researching a story on one of the previous court fights between Flint Hills, the Kansas-based company that bought the refinery in 2004, and the Williams companies of Oklahoma.

The companies have blamed each other for allowing the extensive and prolonged spill of the solvent sulfolane, while also complaining about a lack of state oversight. The liability costs are enormous because the sulfolane has spread for miles, which is why a trial is taking place now in Fairbanks.

About 1,500 people with polluted wells or near polluted wells have been getting drinking water delivered for years and a major expansion of the North Pole water utility is in the works. Research about the health impacts continues.

Williams argued in the past that during almost all the time that it owned the refinery, the state owned the land underneath it—as well as the groundwater—and “never once notified, much less intimated” that sulfolane was something to worry about.

The solvent entered the groundwater by a combination of leaks and spills, the most prominent of which involved corroded pipes in a sump drain and a leaky liner under a 1.25-acre wastewater lagoon, according to a consultant hired by Flint Hills.

Sulfolane is a water soluble solvent that was used in the making of gasoline starting in 1985. Williams made greater use of the chemical than Flint Hills.

The most sensational claim about the leaky lagoon is that during the time when Williams Alaska Petroleum Co. owned the refinery, a supervisor fired a high-powered rifle at a piece of the plastic liner that floated to the surface in the lagoon. The employees referred to these plastic bubbles that rose above the water as “belugas.”

“Somebody nicknamed them that because they looked liked whales breaching the water,” Ben Britten, a former refinery employee said in a 2012 deposition for Flint Hills.

“Belugas are where a gas, probably methane, has pushed up the liner above the liquid surface,” Britten said. “So it’s just a big, round bubble of liner sticking above the water level.”

ARCADIS, a consulting company, said in a 2013 report that the integrity of the lagoon liner was suspect as of early 1987, when MAPCO reported a problem. The lagoon liner had 45 holes that had to be fixed in 1986.

“It was reported that a Williams employee also shot at a large bubble in the liner during Williams’ ownership,” the report said.

In documents from 1986 to 2005, there were repeated reports of sightings of “whales” in the lagoons where wastewater and drain water was treated.

“The existence of these bubbles may indicate liner integrity issues,” a report said. ”The factual record also indicates that the Lagoon B liner was abused during the Williams era.”

Flint Hills has cited the gunshot, as well as the transfer of “thousands of gallons of sulfolane waste” into the lagoon, as evidence of negligence by Williams.

At one time there was a gun club and shooting range on the west side of the refinery property, the report said, which is why the guns were on the property. This was long before the Sept. 11 attacks changed attitudes in Alaska and everywhere in the country about security.

“Employees going to the gun club would walk by Lagoon B and on at least one occasion in the Williams era, an employee who was reportedly a marksman shot at and struck a ‘whale’ in the liner using a high-powered rifle,” it said.

Lagoon B, covering 220 feet by 240 feet, was a “large source of sulfolane,” the report said, with several reports of tears and holes in the liner.

The anecdotal evidence points to high levels of the chemical in wastewater going back before 1990, Geomega said.

Britten said that he once saw a superintendent of operations for Williams fire a Colt Sauer .458-Magnum at one of the plastic bubbles. He said this was before a second lagoon was built in 1987.

“It’s basically an elephant gun,” Britten said in his deposition, adding that the superintendent hit the “beluga” as he was “an extremely good marksman.”

The bubbles in the lagoon liner, dubbed “belugas” by refinery employees.

The bubbles in the lagoon liner, dubbed “belugas” by refinery employees.

Dermot Cole2 Comments