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The site of the Davis Refinery, pictured on July 31, 2018, southwest of Belfield, N.D. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

Another dispute over oil refinery near national park goes to North Dakota Supreme Court

BISMARCK — Two environmental groups who believe North Dakota regulators should have waded into the dispute over the site of an $800 million oil refinery planned near Theodore Roosevelt National Park are appealing a judge’s decision to the contrary.

It’s the second dispute over the planned Davis Refinery to reach the North Dakota Supreme Court.

The state Public Service Commission last year declined to review whether the refinery could be built just 3 miles from the park in the western Badlands, concluding the facility will be too small to warrant review under state law.

Environmental groups that don’t believe developer Meridian Energy Group is being forthright about the refinery’s size asked a state judge to order the commission to hold a hearing.

South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick in May refused, ruling that the PSC followed state law that requires only those oil refineries with a capacity of 50,000 or more barrels daily to obtain a site permit.

Meridian’s current capacity estimate for the Davis Refinery is 49,500 barrels daily. The Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Dakota Resource Council question the company’s veracity.

Attorneys for the group have now appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing the groups should have at least been granted a PSC hearing or the opportunity to obtain more information from Meridian.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak declined comment on the appeal Wednesday, citing ongoing litigation. Meridian spokesman Mark Hanes said the company also does not comment on ongoing legal matters, but he added that “we remain confident.”

A PSC review can take half a year or longer to complete. Meridian has called the efforts of the two environmental groups to challenge the size of the refinery “a fishing expedition,” even though at one time it publicly said the refinery would have a capacity of 55,000 barrels and its state air quality permit is for a facility with a 55,000-barrel capacity. The company lowered the figure as the project evolved, and Meridian CEO William Prentice has signed an affidavit saying the company has “no current plans” for expansion.

Meridian also has accused the environmental groups of trying to delay the refinery project.

The groups worry pollution will erode air quality and mar the majestic scenery at the national park that’s North Dakota’s top tourist attraction, drawing more than 700,000 visitors annually. Meridian says its facility will be the “cleanest refinery on the planet,” a model for future plants and a boost for the area economy.

Meridian began site work for the refinery a year ago. Officials last spring said the goal was to have the facility fully operating by mid-2021.

Hanes on Wednesday did not provide specifics on construction but said “all aspects of the Davis Refinery are proceeding and we are happy with its progress.”

Meridian faces another Supreme Court battle, however. The National Parks Conservation Association last spring appealed the air quality permit that the state Health Department issued and a judge upheld, arguing it violates the federal Clean Air Act.

The Health Department determined after a two-year review that the refinery will not be a major source of pollution that will negatively impact the park. State Air Quality Director Terry O’Clair said the state is confident in the finding.