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Pristine air challenges proposed refinery

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air quality graphic 1

This graph shows the allowable pollution increments for Class I and Class II air quality standards measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. A proposed refinery near Fryburg will be less than 3 miles from Class I air at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

A proposed refinery near Fryburg would be among the closest industrial complexes to a national park anywhere in the country.

That proximity to Theodore Roosevelt National Park at Medora — less than 3 miles as the crow flies — is guaranteed to make the acquisition of an air quality permit a difficult process, says Craig Thorstenson, environmental engineer with the state Health Department’s air quality division.

Meridian Energy Group, of California, plans a 55,000-barrel-per-day refinery to make gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, asphalt and lubricants at an estimated cost of $850 million, according to a zoning application on file with Billings County.

The park — home to buttes and buffalo — has a Class I air quality standard. Any new source of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate will face a federal standard to prevent significant air quality deterioration that’s far more stringent than for all other air, Thorstenson said.

“It’s a very unique situation. It will be very difficult and lengthy,” he said of the permit process.

To illustrate just how difficult, Thorstenson provides a chart that shows how small the allowable increments are for Class I air. Nitrogen dioxide, for example, can only be increased by 2.5 millionths of a gram per cubic meter of air, a particle a thousand times less weighty than a gnat.

He said it will take as long as a year to run computer models that factor in existing pollution, new pollution from the refinery and wind and weather data. Other pollutants from a refinery include volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, which fall under ambient air and health quality rules.

Meridian must use the best available control technology but, even then, would still emit hundreds of tons of pollution, according to Thorstenson, who said that is in addition to carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of tons.

Meridian plans to file an air quality permit application in May, according to Meridian president William Prentice, who said the company recently hired a specialized company to perform emission dispersion modeling that will add up to eight weeks to the application work on its end.

“We want to make sure we get this right. Refineries are dirty when they’re old. This project, when it’s done, will be the cleanest plant ever built,” said Prentice, pointing out that the flare stack will be contained and fitted with a catalytic converter to reduce emissions.

“We know how close this is to the park, and we think we can co-exist with pristine air,” he said.

In the meantime, Meridian is asking Billings County to set aside an air quality permit as a zoning condition to proceed with dirt work and build an agricultural tree buffer, so “the project does not lose this coming summer as part of the construction schedule,” according to the zoning application.

Billings County Planning and Zoning will take up Meridian’s case at its April 21 meeting in Medora. If it makes a recommendation, that would go to the Billings County Commission at its May 3 meeting.

Meridian can move all the dirt it wants ahead of an air quality permit, but not much else, according to Thorstenson, explaining that the project would be considered a major source of pollution and, without a permit, nothing permanent, such as foundations, could be established at this point. A major source of pollution is defined as emitting more than 100 tons annually of any regulated pollutant.

The new Dakota Prairie Refining near Dickinson was issued a minor source pollution permit because it’s a diesel topping plant, not a gasoline process refinery, Thorstenson said.

Meridian’s air quality permit application will be watched closely by the National Park Service air resources division.

Park service environmental engineer Don Shepherd said the agency can — after reviewing the permit for how it affects the ambient air quality and whether it meets the “prevention of significant deterioration” threshold — still make a determination of adverse impact. If the state agrees with that finding, the permit would not be issued, or the permit could be appealed, he said.

Thorstenson said the federal Environmental Protection Agency has the same authority for review and determination of adverse impact.

“What would happen after that, I don’t know. We’ve never gone down that road,” he said.

Shepherd said that review and appeal, if it were to come to that, would be a lengthy process.

“That can take time, months or years. We’ll wait and see. That’s the only fair thing,” he said.

Prentice said the refinery would be sited so it’s not visible from the park and the emission’s technology will make it cleaner than a typical dry cleaner.

“This is not your grandfather’s refinery. It’s a much different world now with technology. Pollution is not inevitable,” he said.

“This is not your grandfather’s refinery. It’s a much different world now with technology. Pollution is not inevitable.” — Meridian president William Prentice

Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or

“This is not your grandfather’s refinery. It’s a much different world now with technology. Pollution is not inevitable."

-- Meridian president William Prentice


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