Tainted Wells in North Pole Spur Alaska Officials to Issue Garden Alert
FAIRBANKS - The state is preparing to caution gardeners using well water contaminated with sulfolane.Department of Environmental Conservation project manager Ann Farris said a study last summer shows the chemical contaminates garden plants. "The bottom line is that sulfolane was in the plants," Farris sad. "We have already asked Flint Hills (Resources) to be prepared to provide people with water for their gardening until we can get more information on the toxicity or on the uptake of sulfolane in these plants." About 200 wells in North Pole and outside the city have water contaminated with sulfolane, an industrial solvent used to refine oil. Flint Hills discovered the groundwater contamination last year. It stretches from the refinery to about three miles northwest of the refinery. The results of testing to determine how deep the contamination has spread are expected by the end of the month, Farris said. DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig will discuss the sulfolane contamination at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in a meeting of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Economic Development Commission. The commission meets in the Salcha Conference Room at the borough administrative center. Flint Hills is continuing efforts to make sure affected businesses and households have access to clean water and to ensure a chemical spill of this magnitude doesn't happen again, refinery spokesman Jeff Cook said. Gasoline spills that occurred before the year 2000 are believed to have soaked soil at the refinery, causing sulfolane to seep into the groundwater. "The cost to date has been several million dollars," Cook stated in an e-mail, "and since the sulfolane impacting the residents left the refinery property before Flint Hills' acquiring the refinery, Flint Hills has requested the prior owner, Williams, to contribute to solving this problem. So far, Williams has not done so. Regardless, Flint Hills will continue to work with the residents and the DEC toward solving this problem." In addition to providing bottled water to affected residents, the company is testing a filtration system with hopes that residents can resume using their wells. Flint Hills also dug two new wells for the city of North Pole after finding trace amounts of sulfolane in the public water system. Cook said testing and permitting for the new wells should be finished by the end of the year. State regulators say they don't think the levels of sulfolane found in the groundwater in the North Pole area are enough to make people sick, but no studies have been conducted on the long-term effects of low levels of sulfolane on humans. High doses of sulfolane have been shown to harm or kill animals. "I wish these chemicals, before they even went into manufacturing, were required to have more information on them," Farris said. Almost 30 of the households with tainted wells have been connected to the public water system in North Pole. The rest might have to decide between installing a bulk water tank or a filtration system. Preliminary results from pilot tests of a filtration system in five homes look promising, Farris and Cook said. Flint Hills is poised to set up individual meetings with homeowners after the first of the year to discuss options for long-term relief, Cook said. One of the property owners, James West, has sued. His case is set to go to trial in August. West drank the tainted well water every day for more than two years. Now, he won't use the water to wash his clothes, he said. He suffers from various health problems and wonders if his ill health is connected to the sulfolane. "My biggest concern is what's going to happen five or 10 years down the road," West said. He's also worried about the contamination's impact on the value of his property. "Would you want to buy someone's property with a contaminated water well?" he said. No one else has joined the lawsuit, and attorney Jason Weiner's attempt at having it declared a class-action lawsuit failed. Weiner said he is meeting with affected property owners at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Hotel North Pole.