JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie —A Short Message About Our National Park

This might be the shortest blog post I’ve ever written. Or will ever write. But it’s an important one, so if you are concerned about the possibility of an oil refinery being built next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park as I am, please take just one minute to read it.

I had a chance encounter with Gov. Doug Burgum this weekend. We had a lengthy, frank and off-the-record discussion about the Davis refinery.

Off-the-record, but I think I can share a few things with you after the conversation without him objecting.

First, I don’t think the governor wants an oil refinery next to our national park any more than you and I do, but I believe he is committed to letting the regulatory process play out, without interfering with his agencies.

Second, I think that he believes, as do many of us, that there will be a legal process before construction begins on the refinery and that he is committed to letting that legal process play out as well.

And third, if the refinery gets its permits and survives a legal challenge, I am starting to get the feeling that we might be able to convince the governor to intervene personally with the company and try to get them to move it away from the park.

To convince him, we need to let the governor know that we will support any efforts he undertakes to get the company to move the refinery away from the national park by sending him an e-mail at governor@nd.gov. We can do that now, or we can do that after the legal process is over. But now might be better.

To quote my new online friend and fellow blogger, Judge Tom Davies: Amen.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Charlie Creek To Belfield — A History Lesson

The last major threat to the visual integrity of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at least that I can recall — though there have been many skirmishes with the oil industry — was in 1989, when the Western Area Power Administration came really close to putting a huge transmission line along the east boundary of the South Unit of the Park.

I’m reminded of that in the context of the Meridian Energy Group’s horrible idea to put their proposed Davis Oil Refinery in about the same place, along the east edge of the park.

In the 1960s, WAPA, one of four federal power marketing administrations that serves our part of the United States, determined there was going to be a need for more electricity in part of its region in the future, and Basin Electric, headquartered in Bismarck, had surplus power to sell. All that was needed was a way for Basin to get its power into the WAPA system.

They determined that the best way was to build a transmission line — one with those big metal towers — from Basin’s Charlie Creek substation in McKenzie County, near the junction of state Highway 200 and U.S. Highway 85, to tie into an east-west WAPA power line near Belfield, N.D., about 40 miles south. WAPA commenced a federal Environmental Impact Statement process to find the best location for the line and its towers (unlike Meridian, which refuses to even submit to a state site review process) in 1969, and issued a draft EIS.

Some 20 years later, when demand reached the point that WAPA decided it needed the extra power, it commenced a review process with a public comment period and public hearings on the project. The review process focused on two identified corridors for the power line: a western line, called W1-1, which was four miles shorter and a million dollars cheaper than one farther east, called E-4-1R. WAPA recommended using the shortest, cheapest route, W-1-1.

Unfortunately, that route ran beside the eastern boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and would have been visible from most high places in the park. The eastern route ran alongside Highway 85, five miles or so east of the park, and out of sight from the park.

So in the spring of 1988, WAPA published a notice of its intent to build the line next to the park and opened a public comment period. Tracy Potter and I were running the State Tourism Office at the time, and if WAPA could have picked any two people on the planet it did not want in THAT office at THAT time, it would have been the two of us. Our boss, Gov. George Sinner, turned us loose to organize against building the line next to the park.

In advance of the public hearings, which were to be held in Belfield and Grassy Butte, N.D., on July 26-27, 1988, we got on the phone and began rounding up supporters to send letters to WAPA, asking it to move the line east, to the highway, out of sight of the park. We did a pretty good job.

U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick wrote:

“In recent days, I have received a number of letters from concerned citizens who believe that the route recommended for the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) will have long term negative effects on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As well, the North Dakota Tourism Office and the State Highway Department have also expressed opposition to the recommended route.

“It seems clear from the concerns raised by the opponents that WAPA should reconsider the options and seek a more acceptable routing for the line. Granted, the additional $1 million in construction costs must be an item of consideration. However, when viewed in the context, it seems the additional $1 million is not too large a price to pay to protect such a national treasure as Theodore Roosevelt Park.”

How about that! Why don’t we have U. S. senators like that anymore?

And Congressman Byron Dorgan wrote:

“The visual impact (on Theodore Roosevelt National Park) is unacceptable. I hope you will hear the concerns of myself and of many others who are committed to protecting the natural, scenic beauty of the Badlands.”

I know that our newest senator at the time, Kent Conrad, weighed in on this as well, but I can’t find his letter.

Even our boss, Gov. Sinner, and his lieutenant governor, Lloyd Omdahl, sent a jointly signed letter (although I think Tracy probably wrote it for them):

“North Dakotans have jealously guarded the Badlands scenic areas from avoidable intrusions. Consequently the Park today still provides awesome views of natural beauty unmarred by artificial structures. Whether or not future generations will be able to share this beauty will be determined by this generation and the decisions it makes about development in the area. We must proceed cautiously in the consideration of proposals to change the landscape.”

Other letters came from concerned citizens, and the usual suspects — the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association and others, many of whom are now involved, 30 years later, in the current fight to move the Davis refinery away from the park.

Tracy led the testimony at the public hearing in Belfield, followed by TRNP’s Chief Ranger Bob Powell, Gary Redmann from the State Highway Department representing then-Commissioner Walt Hjelle, Wally Owen from Medora, who ran the horse concession in the park, and finally, batting cleanup, Medora Mayor and President of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Rod Tjaden, who I think was also state chairman of the Greater North Dakota Association, the state’s chamber of commerce, at the time. (Humorous aside: Tjaden, not known for hanging out with the environmental crowd, sent me a note a few months later that said “Dammit, Fuglie, I’m getting mail from the Sierra Club, and it’s YOUR FAULT!”)

After the public hearings, WAPA went into hibernation for about six months, and in early 1989 released its final EIS, with its final recommendation on a route for their transmission line, which concluded with this statement:

“Through public comment, it was determined that visibility of the line from residences, local urban areas and TRNP was of significant importance. In particular, a large number of comments expressed concern for the visibility of the proposed line from TRNP. It was determined that the agency-preferred route would be changed from W1-1, as specified in the DEIS, to E4-1R (the environmentally preferred route).”

A loud cheer could be heard throughout western North Dakota. The system worked. The park was protected.

Well, that’s our history lesson for today. Sadly, history doesn’t often repeat itself. A month or so ago, I sent letters to our current governor, Doug Burgum, and to our congressional delegation, asking them to meet with the Meridian people and ask them to move the proposed refinery away from the park. I got a couple of responses.

This in an e-mail from Jodee Hanson in the governor/s office:

“The Governor respects the public comment period, which is still ongoing, and is staying apprised of the Department of Health’s permitting process being conducted within the boundaries of the law.”

To which I responded:

“Thanks for the note Jodee. Relay to everyone there that the ‘boundaries of the law’ are the minimum standard for action by public officials. There is much more that can, and should, be done. Like a one-on-one between Burgum and Prentice, heart to heart, CEO to CEO. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The governor could make that happen by putting the hammer down on Prentice: “Y’know, Bill, we’re in this together for the long haul. We’re going to be looking at each other and talking to each other for a long time. Let’s be responsible and see what a PSC site review tells us.”

I also got an e-mail from a staffer for Congressman Kevn Cramer:

“Congressman Cramer has been in contact with both the N.D. Department of Health and EPA ensuring the project meets human health and environmental requirements.”

To which I responded:

“Relay to everyone there that meeting the “human health and environmental requirements” is not enough in this case. There is much more that can, and should, be done. As a former State Tourism director, Kevin understands the impact on our National Park. I’d suggest a one-on-one between the congressman and Meridian CEO Bill Prentice, heart to heart. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The Congressman could help make that happen by meeting with Prentice:”

I’ve not heard anything from our two senators. I’m going to send them, along with Cramer and Burgum, a copy of this blog post to remind them of what can be done if everyone pulls their own weight.

Maybe. Just maybe …

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Meridian Refinery Application Is On The Shelf — Where It Belongs

The North Dakota Department of Health has called “Bullshit!” 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 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  and nitrogen oxides 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 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, “Bullshit.”

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.

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 U.S. 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 “Bullshit!” What other “recent U.S. 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 s snot-nosed kid talking back to his baby-sitter.

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 O’Clair and 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 10 miles down the railroad tracks. That sounds like a good job for a new governor.