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​Health Department Shelves Meridian’s Permit Application

by Jim Fuglie | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Last Word | June 21st, 2017

The North Dakota Department of Health has called “Bullsh*t!” on Meridian Energy’s application to construct its Davis Oil Refinery three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

In fact, in a strongly-worded letter to Meridian, Terry O’Clair, Director of the Division of Air Quality, says he has actually stopped the review of the application until Meridian sends the Department information to prove the numbers are accurate that they use to justify building so close to a national park, which has Class 1 Air Quality Standards.

In a letter to Meridian Vice President Tom Williams, O’Clair writes “During the Department’s ongoing review of the application, some concerns have been identified. These concerns need to be resolved to the Department’s satisfaction prior to the Department continuing its review of the application.”

The major sticking point for the Health Department seems to be Meridian’s request to be considered as a “minor” source of pollution under Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) of federal air quality rules. That designation eases up some of the federal oversight of the refinery’s pollution potential, considering the fact that it is next to the national park.

But O’Clair writes that the PSD rules classify a petroleum refinery as a “major” source, and he says that the application by Meridian “does not provide sufficient information to support classification of the facility as a minor source.”

To get into specifics, O’Clair writes that the Department has major concerns with the numbers provided in the application. That’s a nice way of saying “Bullshit.” For example, he says that the emissions of Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) projected by the company “are considerably lower than established emission rates for similar equipment in the industry,” and that there is no data indicating that the levels Meridian is projecting have ever been achieved at an existing refinery.

The letter goes on to say the Department is concerned about volatile organic compounds (VOC) leaking from the refinery, about oily water sewer drains, and questions the use of some documents from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, describing the potential for leaks of pollutants from the refinery, as an industry standard.

So the Department did some calculations of its own, and determined that, using the Texas documents, the refinery would not meet the minor source requirements. O’Clair even sent the calculations along with his letter to Meridian, saying “Based on the information above, NOx, CO and VOC emissions from the Facility appear to be significantly underestimated and the Department questions, based on the level of information currently provided, that the Davis Refinery can operate at capacity and maintain emissions of all pollutants below the minor source level of 100 tons per year.”

In other words, “Bullsh*t.”

So, in conclusion, O’Clair writes “Given the information provided in the application, more detailed information must be provided prior to the Department continuing a review of the application. For a facility of this size, in this industry, and at this proposed location, the refinery should be designed according to health, safety, economics and operability.”

There were a lot of technical terms in O’Clair’s letter, and I’m an English major, not a STEM major, so I turned to Craig Thorstenson, the permitting supervisor of the Health Department’s Air Quality Division, to make sure I understood what was going on.

Craig said that they reviewed the Meridian application, and it became clear that the design process wasn’t far enough along for them to continue to reviewing the application. It’s going to take hundreds, probably thousands, of hours of review before a permit can be issued, and he wants to see the design before he commits his staff to that kind of time on the application.

O’Clair’s letter ended on a note of skepticism (my polite term for “Bullshit”).

“After a thorough design is completed, emissions should then be estimated based on the actual equipment/operations included in the design. This will provide added assurance regarding projected emissions from the facility. This assurance is vital given the location of the facility and the significance of the facility as a major source under the PSD rules. If the facility is determined to be a major source under the PSD rules, additional requirements (including but not limited to, a Best Available Control Technology review) must be satisfied prior to issuance of a permit.”

Twice he brought up the possibility of the refinery being a “major” source of pollution.

Craig Thorstenson said work on the application has stopped for now.

Well, that letter left the Meridian folks pretty pissed off. Their letter of response included things like “Given the level of detail that you are now requesting, which we believe is unusually detailed, especially in light of any other recent US refinery air permit application. . . .” and “Meridian and its advisors believe the level of detail required by NDDOH far exceeds the normal level of detail required for such a permit in this industry . . .” and “it is uncommon to have such level of detail at this stage in the permitting process.”

Well, cry me a river, Meridian. This time I’ll call “Bullsh*t!” What other “recent US refinery air permit application?” You’ve said yourself that there hasn’t been a full scale refinery built in the U.S. since 1977. That’s not too recent.

Meridian Vice President Williams even questions the Health Department’s calculations, accusing them of using “overly conservative emission factors” that don’t reflect “the current state of technology.” And then he said that his company would analyze the Department’s calculations and provide further justification of their own estimations.

I swear, this is one of the whiniest letters I’ve ever seen from a high-ranking officer of a major corporation. He said “Again, even though it is not typically required at this time,” the company will provide new emission figures. And here’s his closing paragraph:

“I wish to reiterate that Meridian believes its Application and Amendment to its PTC Application have fully and adequately addressed each of the items raised in your May 15 letter, and at a level of detail that is technically and legally justified. Thus we trust that, with the additional requested information specifically addressing each and every concern and issue you have identified, the NDDOH will quickly accept and approve our emissions inventory and will expeditiously move forward in making a full determination of completeness of our application documents.”

WTF? “technically and legally justified?” What’s that mean? The lawyers are engaged already? Approve this or we’ll see you in court?

And “each and every concern and issue you have identified?” Sounds like a snot-nosed kid talking back to his babysitter.

Look, Meridian, as far as almost every North Dakotan I know is concerned, you can take your emissions inventory and Texas regulations and shove them where the sun doesn’t shine (or more politely, just take them back to California, where the sun does shine, and stay there with them). You’re asking to put a refinery next door to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and telling us to “just trust us—we won’t pollute.” Well, one last time. Bullshit!

You know, I’ve had some trouble trusting the higher-ups at the Health Department from time to time, (in fact, I’m betting there’s a wailing and gnashing of teeth around the corporate board table at Meridian, with cries of “Bring back Jack Dalrymple—we never had these problems when he was in charge”) but I’ll take the numbers from the environmental engineers at the North Dakota Air Quality Division over the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality any day. Texas? They don’t regulate anything down there.

For now, Meridian’s construction permit application is on a shelf in the Health Department. But if I had to bet today, I’d bet that there will be a refinery somewhere near our national park someday. How near depends on how diligent we are. If it happens, I want to be damn sure it doesn’t ruin my park. We’re all counting on Terry O’Clair and Craig Thorstenson, and the whole Division of Air Quality, and the whole North Dakota Department of Health, and the Governor they all work for, to make sure it’s done right.

Or better yet, to find a way to convince them to move it ten miles down the railroad tracks. That sounds like a good job for a new Governor. 

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