An administrative law judge in North Dakota is recommending that state officials issue a water permit for an oil refinery being developed near Theodore Roosevelt National Park that's being opposed by environmentalists and some area landowners.
Three landowners last summer challenged a proposed State Water Commission permit allowing the Davis Refinery to draw water from an underwater aquifer. Their concerns included how they might be affected and how much of the water would be wasted.
They also argued that the amount of water specified in the proposed permit was not the same as what Meridian Energy Group had initially requested, a change landowner attorney JJ England maintained was illegal.
Administrative Law Judge Tim Dawson held a hearing in November that focused on whether Meridian would use all of the allowable water for a "beneficial" use. England asserted Meridian's plans for treating and using the water are vague and at times conflicting, while state water officials testified that the company had submitted sufficient information justifying a conditional permit that would be fine-tuned after refinery operations begin and its precise water needs are determined.
Dawson in a ruling dated Tuesday recommended State Engineer Garland Erbele issue the proposed permit, saying "a refinery requires water" and that "there is no realistic harm to the public interest."
It wasn't immediately known when Erbele would issue a final decision. Landowners have the option of appealing that decision to state district court. Their attorney was out of the office and not immediately available for comment Thursday.
Meridian issued a statement Thursday applauding the ruling.
"Once again we are gratified that our work and the work of the various state agencies involved are withstanding this intensive litigation-related review," CEO William Prentice said.
Meridian is developing the refinery just 3 miles (5 kilometers) from North Dakota's top tourist attraction. It began ground work at the site last summer. But environmental groups are challenging its state air quality permit in court, as well as a decision by state regulators not to review whether the refinery site is appropriate.
The groups worry about pollution in the 30,000-acre (12,000-hectare) park that draws more than 700,000 visitors annually. Meridian maintains the refinery will have modern technology that will make it "the cleanest refinery on the planet."