JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — North Dakota’s Image: We Just Don’t Give A Damn

It’s not important whether you see a refinery stack from the highest point in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit. What’s important is what comes out of that stack.

Meridian Energy’s publicity stunt the other night, hoisting a weather balloon from the site of its proposed refinery just three miles from the park and proving that it couldn’t be seen from Buck Hill, might have been good headlines, but it didn’t mean a damn thing.

You can see a lot of crap from Buck Hill, including cell phone towers, a couple of dozen oil wells, gas flares, storage tank batteries, and scoria roads leading to all of them, mostly courtesy of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Another obscure stack sticking up a few feet above the horizon would just add a little bit to the clutter.

But anyone who’s driven past the Tesoro Refinery in Mandan knows the plume from the stack rises several times higher than the stack itself. That’s what would be visible from much of the eastern half of the park — maybe even all of it. Meridian isn’t talking about that.

We’ve grown pretty accustomed to that big white plume in Bismarck-Mandan, and some days, against a bright blue sky, when there’s no wind blowing, it’s actually kind of pretty. Until you start wondering what’s in it.

I know, I know, it’s mostly water, in the form of steam. Most industrial sites these days, especially out here on the prairie, are pretty careful about what they spew into the air. The EPA’s Clean Air Act rules help — thank you Richard Nixon. It just LOOKS like pollution.

But the same plume on the park’s eastern boundary would be pretty distracting to visitors who’ve driven thousands of miles to see our Bad Lands — and Theodore Roosevelt National Park — and the clear North Dakota sky.

Even if it’s mostly water rising high into the air, those visitors won’t know that, and they’ll be more than a little miffed at North Dakota for allowing such a thing in the spectacular North Dakota Bad Lands, right on the boundary of a National Park. As in “What the Hell was North Dakota thinking, letting them build a polluting refinery right next to a national park? What kind of state is this anyway?”

Our reputation as a state is at stake here. Is this really the image we want to project? Do we really want to be known as the state that let an irresponsible California company put a big white smoke-belching oil refinery beside the national park named for America’s Conservation President, Theodore Roosevelt? That thought makes me sad.

Oh, I know, the Meridian folks are saying they “might not” have a plume. They’re considering a “dry cooled” process that won’t produce a plume. Well, it that’s the case, then what the hell is your stack there for, Meridian, the one you’re so proud of hiding?

Because of your proximity to the National Park with its Class I Air Quality status, you’re not allowed to discharge any particulates, so if you’re not going to emit a plume of steam, what do you need a stack for?

Mighty convenient that no one raised the issue of the plume at Wednesday’s Billings County Commission meeting, but if they had, the company was ready to say, “we haven’t decided that yet. We might not have one.”

Here’s what else is convenient: Meridian stalled submitting its application for an Air Quality Permit to the State Health Department until the Billings County Commissioners agreed Wednesday to a zoning change for the land on which the refinery will be located. So the refinery has an approved site but no one really knows just how the company will try to meet air quality standards established by the federal Clean Air Act.

You can bet your ass that application is sitting on a CEO’s desk and will be mailed before the week is out, now that they have the zoning change. The application will have to say whether they will have a plume or not. We’ll see.

The good news in all of this is that before the refinery is built, Meridian will have to prove that it will not pollute the air to the extent that the national park loses Class I Air Quality.

In the application to the State Health Department, which enforces federal Clean Air Standards in North Dakota (I know — groan), Meridian must tell what steps it will be taking to not foul the park’s air. If the Health Department believes Meridian, it can issue a permit to construct the plant.

We’re in pretty much uncharted waters here — no one’s ever built an oil refinery three miles from a national park before, that I know of. Gee, imagine that.

The Health Department says it could take a year after it gets the application to do the modeling to see if what Meridian says it will do will actually work. That gives Meridian time to see if the price of the gasoline it will be producing rises to a level that will make the plant profitable. That’s a big If. The current low cost of a barrel of oil is actually beneficial to the refinery, but the product that comes out of that oil must be worth enough to justify producing it.

Then there’s the matter of who will buy it. As I understand it, the Tesoro refinery in Mandan already produces enough gas for North Dakota. Added to that supply is Tesoro’s newly acquired refinery 25 miles down the railroad at Dickinson. Tesoro bought it from Montana Dakota Utilities before it bankrupted MDU. With gas at $2.29 a gallon, it didn’t work for MDU. I’m not sure how Tesoro plans to handle it.

And those who argue about safety and say we should be refining oil here instead of shipping it out of state are ignoring the fact that if the refinery is built, we’ll be shipping the much more volatile gasoline out of state.

Frankly, unless gas prices rise substantially, I don’t think the refinery will be built. But if it is, and if the company has any conscience at all, any sense of community and respect for a state that is going to be its new home, there’s not a good reason in the world why it could not be built somewhere else.

Yes, Meridian needs access to crude oil, and it needs access to the railroads, but there’s a lot of miles of railroad running through oil country — even if it was just 10 miles down the track.

As I sat through Wednesday’s meeting and listened to people argue against the zoning change, I tried to come up with what I thought might be the telling argument for not putting the refinery there.

Finally, former Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said it: “Three miles from a national park is just not a good place to put a refinery.” It’s that simple. Think about it.

The other factor is, as I wrote here earlier, Meridian has plans for an industrial zone all the way to Belfield, lining the road to the national park with all kinds of industrial developments and the trucks that service them.

Valerie Naylor pointed out at Wednesday’s meeting that lining the entrance to a national park with industry might just turn people off and cause them to say “Nah, let’s just keep going. This doesn’t look like a place we want to stop.” Especially if the industrial development and trucks are situated under a huge white plume of what looks like smoky pollution to passers-by.

They might not be able to see that stack from the park, but they’re sure as hell going to see it as they approach the park. Welcome to North Dakota, where we’ll pay any aesthetic and environmental price for 200 jobs, even the desecration of a national park.

Well, shame on us.

Are you listening, North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Coleman and Gov. Jack Dalrymple? Nah, never mind, we know better. But are you listening, Marvin Nelson and Doug Burgum? One of you is going to be governor when decision time arrives next year.

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