Members of an environmental group challenging the Davis Refinery argue the developer’s plans have changed significantly since Billings County approved the project, resulting in an increase in truck traffic they fear will make the area unsafe.

In a recent court filing, the Dakota Resource Council argues Meridian Energy should not begin construction until the Billings County Commission issues a conditional use permit based on the company’s latest plans.

Meridian Energy told commissioners in a 2016 permit application that truck traffic to the facility near Belfield would be minimized in favor of rail and pipeline transportation.

However, a rail loading system was later eliminated from the refinery proposal, causing the estimated amount of truck traffic to double, according to Meridian’s applications to the North Dakota Department of Health.

An estimate of truck traffic was not included in the 100-page permit application to Billings County.

In an October 2016 application to the Department of Health, Meridian estimated the refinery would have 81 truck loading trips every day.

But in a revised April 2017 application to the Department of Health, which notes that a rail system was eliminated, Meridian estimated the Davis Refinery would have about 170 trucks per day.

“It’s just such a staggering number,” said Bismarck attorney JJ England, who represents the Dakota Resource Council. “In an area that’s rural, it’s going to change people’s lives.”

Members of the Dakota Resource Council who live within 3 miles of the refinery site wrote in court affidavits they are concerned about truck traffic making it dangerous to drive.

England argues in a motion for summary judgment that the conditional use permit from Billings County should be considered void and the company should not be allowed to construct the facility until obtaining a new permit from the county.

Meridian had not filed a response to the motion as of Friday. In a previous court filing, Meridian argued the permit from the county is valid and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

In a written response to questions from the Bismarck Tribune in January, Meridian CEO William Prentice declined to provide an estimate of truck traffic, referring questions to the 2016 application to Billings County. Prentice said Meridian did not expect to receive crude oil by truck and would be “pushing as much product shipment to pipeline and rail as soon as possible.”

It’s unclear what rail transportation system Prentice was referencing and a company spokesman did not respond to a question Friday seeking clarification.

Meridian at one time discussed transporting products from the nearby Fryburg rail terminal owned by Andeavor but that is no longer planned, Department of Health officials said at a hearing in May.

There is no pipeline to transport refined fuels in that area.

In addition, it is not clear whether Meridian intends to dispose of wastewater generated by the refinery onsite or truck it to an existing disposal well. The company has not applied for a permit from the Department of Health for a Class I injection well, which would be required to dispose of that type of waste.

In its application to the county, Meridian said it plans to pave and improve roads surrounding the refinery and collaborate with local officials on traffic studies.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, Meridian is pushing for the case to be moved from Burleigh County to Billings County District Court. Attorney Lawrence Bender argues Billings County is the appropriate venue because it affects property there and that's where witnesses are located.

Meridian announced on July 17 it had hired contractors to begin initial site construction.

The project that would be 3 miles from the boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park continues to face additional legal hurdles, though none that prevent the company from proceeding with construction at this time.

A separate lawsuit challenges Meridian's permit with the North Dakota Department of Health. In addition, a complaint is pending with the North Dakota Public Service Commission, and an appeal is pending related to a State Water Commission permit.

(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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