Two groups filed a complaint Friday with North Dakota utility regulators that seeks to stop construction of an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park until the project receives a more thorough review.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Dakota Resource Council allege that Meridian Energy is attempting to circumvent state law by not applying for a permit with the Public Service Commission.
The complaint argues that Meridian is attempting to build the Davis Refinery in stages to avoid the scrutiny of the Public Service Commission, which requires siting permits for refineries that process 50,000 barrels per day.
Meridian has, at times, described the project as expanding to process 55,000 barrels per day in statements to investors, in news releases and on state and local permit applications. Later, the company website was amended to 49,500 barrels, just under the threshold.
The inconsistencies prompted commissioners to invite Meridian officials for an informal discussion in December. At the time, Meridian CEO William Prentice said the company plans to build a refinery with a capacity of 27,500 barrels per day with the possibility of expanding in the future.
The North Dakota Department of Health recently issued an air quality permit for the Davis Refinery that stated a capacity of 55,000 barrels per day.
The complaint argues that the Public Service Commission is the only agency that can give a holistic review of the refinery, such as impacts to cultural, historical and recreational resources, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and whether the site is suitable for a refinery.
The complaint seeks a cease-and-desist order from the Public Service Commission to prevent Meridian from constructing the refinery until it obtains a certificate of site compatibility.
Meridian Energy has said construction at the site near Belfield is expected to begin soon now that the project has approval from health regulators.
Linda Weiss of Belfield, a past chairwoman of the Dakota Resource Council, said the group filed the complaint because “Meridian is manipulating North Dakotans.”
“The company shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose what laws suit their purposes,” Weiss said. “We want the PSC to compel Meridian to follow the law.”
Scott Strand, senior attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the project should not go forward until commissioners can review whether the location meets the law’s requirements.
“Meridian should not get away with dividing a project into halves just to avoid the commission’s jurisdiction,” Strand said.
A spokesman for Meridian said the company had no comment on the complaint Friday.
Public Service Commission Chairman Randy Christmann, who had not seen the complaint yet Friday afternoon, said commissioners and staff will quickly process the complaint and take action on it.
“As we do with all cases, I’m sure we’re going to take it up in as quick of a manner as possible,” Christmann said.
During the discussion in December, Christmann warned Meridian of potential legal challenges related to the siting law that could delay construction.
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak urged Meridian to file a permit application and said some companies are proactive and go through the siting process on the front end if they anticipate expanding a facility in the future.
Prentice said at the time he wanted to defer applying to the PSC until the refinery is in operation and officials decide whether to expand.
The complaint filed Friday is one of several hurdles facing the project. A challenge related to a water permit granted by the State Water Commission is scheduled for a hearing in October.
The Dakota Resource Council also recently filed a lawsuit that challenges the local zoning permit, arguing it has expired. Attorneys for Meridian said in a court filing Friday the one-year timeframe in the permit did not start until health regulators approved a permit. They are seeking to have the case dismissed.
In addition, an appeal of the health department permit is likely to be filed in the coming weeks.