BISMARCK, N.D. — A North Dakota judge has upheld a state permit allowing construction to begin on an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, upsetting environmental groups hoping to stop the project.
Judge Dann Greenwood ruled that the state Health Department has effectively supported its position that the $800 million Davis Refinery will not be a major source of pollution that will negatively impact the park just 3 miles (5 kilometres) away.
The agency's “expertise is entitled to deference when, as here, the subject matter is complex,” Greenwood wrote in a ruling dated Wednesday.
The department last June issued an air quality permit that paved the way for Meridian Energy Group to begin site work last summer for the plant, which the company maintains will be “the cleanest refinery on the planet” thanks to modern technology and will be a model for future refineries. The state decision came after a two-year review it said involved more than 1,000 hours of department staff time and more than 10,000 public comments.
The National Parks Conservation Association, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Dakota Resource Council sued over fears that pollution from the refinery will mar the park's scenery and erode air quality for wildlife and visitors. The park is the state's top tourist attraction, drawing more than 700,000 people annually.
Environmental groups argued that the Health Department underestimated potential air pollution from the refinery, asking Greenwood to declare the permit invalid and send the case back to the agency for further review.
They argued in part that the department initially had concerns about the amount of harmful pollutants the refinery might generate and asserted that the agency didn't adequately explain its eventual conclusion that the refinery wouldn't be a major pollution source. Attorneys for the state countered that Meridian provided information that eased initial concerns. Once built, the plant also will need to prove it can meet state and federal air quality standards, and compliance will be continually monitored.
Greenwood said the state's decision shouldn't be overruled “simply because there has been an evolution of its conclusion from one of concern and/or doubt to one of satisfaction that the permit application complies with controlling regulations.”
Meridian in a statement Thursday said the judge's ruling “demonstrates the careful preparation that has gone into the engineering and permitting of the Meridian project.”
The environmental groups issued a statement Thursday saying Greenwood's decision “effectively gives a green light for the Davis Refinery to pollute the air at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and surrounding communities.” They said they will consider all options, which could mean an appeal.
Two of the groups also are challenging a separate decision by other North Dakota regulators not to review whether the refinery site is appropriate. Landowners also are challenging a proposed state permit to allow the refinery to draw water from an underwater aquifer. An administrative law judge earlier this month recommended state officials issue the permit. If they do, it also could be challenged in state court.
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