It was a clever move by Meridian Energy Group when they conducted a demonstration to show that a process stack from a proposed oil refinery wouldn’t be visible from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The company put up an 11-foot-wide kite at the location and height of the stack, and folks were invited to hike up Buck Hill — the highest observation point in the national park — to observe. The bright-red kite wasn't visible, even with binoculars, from about 7 miles away. Company officials even pointed out where to look for the kite floating 150 feet in the air. The kite crew also raised it an additional 100 feet. At that height, with clouds in the backdrop for contrast, the kite was barely visible to some observers.
Overall, the reaction to the demonstration was positive for the company. One observer noted that Interstate 94 was more of a distraction than the kite.
A day later, the Billings County Commission approved zoning for the refinery’s location near Fryburg. It was a big step for Meridian, but a number of steps remain before the refinery can be constructed.
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Meridian Energy Group wants to build a $900 million, 55,000-barrel-per-day refinery as quickly as possible and hope to break ground this year.
The company plans to seek a synthetic minor source air quality permit from the state Health Department. That means Meridian thinks it can build the refinery with enough pollution control equipment to prevent it from being in the major source pollution category. Otherwise, the company might have difficulty getting a permit. If the refinery was likely to be a major pollution source close to the park's Class I air quality standard under the Clean Air Act, it could be difficult getting a permit.
"With this synthetic minor source, they would have major controls on it and these lower emissions would be easier to comply with. If they were a major source that close to the park, I don't think they would get (a permit)," David Glatt, the Health Department's environmental chief, told reporter Lauren Donovan. "The more effective the controls, the better their chance," he added.
Both sides feel there’s a lot at stake. Supporters point to the 200 good-paying jobs and the $2.7 million in annual property taxes. Opponents fear it could lead to a large industrial complex that compromises the park.
While Meridian is eager to start construction, they appear to be taking the right approach. They are trying to ease the fears of the opposition as they build the case for permit approval. If Meridian continues to be thorough in following the approval process it could reduce the time it takes. The burden falls on Meridian to prove it merits approval of the plant and so far they are doing so.