The Great Meridian Energy Smokestack Scam

A couple of months ago I wrote about the new oil refinery proposed by Meridian Energy Group, to be built just east of Medora, within three miles of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I wanted to wait with a follow-up until Meridian had actually submitted an application for an air quality permit, detailing what kind of steps the company was going to take to protect the integrity of the nearby national park. Well, that happened a couple weeks ago. Now we know what they have in mind.  I said in my earlier post “We’re in pretty much uncharted waters here—no one has ever built an oil refinery three miles from a National Park before.”  

Turns out there’s also news on another permit the company is seeking—a water permit, to use 210 million gallons of water per year for refinery operations. You read that right. 210 million gallons. Per year. Out of the ground. In arid western North Dakota. More uncharted waters.

Well here’s the follow-up, talking about both of those things. It’s an article I wrote for the Fargo newspaper High Plains Reader this week. You can check out their website by going here. Here’s “The rest of the story.” So far. There will be more stories to follow. You can be sure of that. 

I’m calling it “The Great Meridian Energy Smokestack Scam.”

Meridian Energy Group is a California-based oil refining company which has proposed to build an oil refinery in western North Dakota. The company has received zoning approval from local government and has submitted applications for groundwater and air quality permits to the state of North Dakota. State agencies which issue those permits have the applications under consideration. There. That’s the basics.

Meridian’s application for a zoning change from agricultural to industrial on 715 acres of land east of Medora, just three miles from the eastern boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, was heard by the Billings County Commission on July 6, 2016. Aware that the location of the refinery that close to a national park didn’t sit well with some local folks, the company held a “demonstration” the afternoon before the meeting to show everyone that the tall smokestack common to oil refineries (you’ve probably seen the one at the Tesoro Refinery in Mandan) would not be visible from the park.

To do that, they raised a weather balloon to the height of the top of the proposed stack, and a small, invited crowd of local officials, conservation organizations, and the news media went out to the park and hiked up to the highest point in the park, Buck Hill, to observe.

“Well, take that!” said refinery officials, when the balloon went up and nobody could see it. “Nothing to worry your pretty little environmentalist heads about!”

County commissioners, eager for the 200 jobs the refinery promises and a half a million dollars a year in property taxes, nodded their heads in agreement, and the next day passed the zoning change, giving Meridian permission to start dirt work as the first phase of the refinery’s construction.

But nobody bothered to ask “Is there going to be anything coming out of that stack?”

Well, it turns out there is.

Fast forward to last week, when Meridian submitted its air quality permit application. I asked Craig Thorstenson from the North Dakota Department of Health what might be coming out of that stack.

“I would expect the plume to be similar to the plume from the Mandan Refinery.”
“I would expect the plume to be similar to the plume from the Mandan Refinery.”

“They are proposing to use a wet scrubber, so there will be a plume associated with the scrubber,” Thorstenson said. “I would expect the plume to be similar to the plume from the Mandan Refinery.”

“The plume is expected to be mostly steam,” he said.  “However, there will be some pollutants emitted. The pollutants are expected to consist mainly of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. The emission rates they’ve provided appear to be very low and we will need to review the information to determine if we agree that the emission rates are achievable. This review will likely take several months.”

Well, if you’ve ever driven through Mandan on I-94, you know that big white plume at the Tesoro plant, rising a couple hundred feet in the air, is pretty hard to miss. And, once the refinery is built, that’s what visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park will see, not just from Buck Hill, but from pretty much everywhere in the park.

Because the refinery is so near the national park, it will have to meet stringent air pollution requirements, because national parks are protected by the Clean Air Act. That’s what the Health Department will spend the next year or so determining—whether they can run a refinery three miles from a national park without violating the Clean Air Act.

The thing is, even if they can, should they? Is it really appropriate to build an oil refinery three miles from a national park? A lot of people don’t think so. Including both the former and current superintendents of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Wendy Ross, current superintendent, said last week “There is only one Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the whole world and it is western North Dakota’s heritage. Meridian Energy has chosen to change forever the experience of the state’s number one tourism attraction instead of considering an alternative location.”

And Valerie Naylor, former superintendent and now a consultant for the National Parks Conservation Association, said “It is not appropriate to site an oil refinery at the gateway of North Dakota’s treasured national park. The visual impact of a refinery so close to the park, and a large plume, will change the setting of the park from natural to industrial in the eyes of many visitors. It still shocks me that Meridian and others think this site is acceptable for a refinery.”

Besides the air quality and the visual intrusion on the park, there is one other issue to be considered: Water. The plume from the stack is the result of what is called a “wet scrubber” to remove potential pollution from the refinery before it escapes the plant. Wet scrubbers use a lot of water.

Meridian has submitted an application to drill wells and use 645 acre feet of water per year. An acre foot is enough water to cover an acre of land a foot deep. 645 acre feet is a little over 210 million gallons of water.

At first blush, when I saw that application, I thought “Holy cow! 210 million gallons of water a year? Out of the ground in arid western North Dakota? Are they nuts?”

Well, no. Because it’s not fresh water, the kind we drink, at least. State Water Commission engineer Jon Patch told me that they’re going way down deep, into something called the Dakota Formation, where there’s a whole bunch of really salty water, and bringing that up, and, I suppose, taking some of the salt out of it, and using it to scrub whatever is coming out of the stack. The Dakota Formation, Patch told me, is where the oil companies re-inject the salt water and fracking water from oil wells back into the ground to dispose of it.

Patch said the Water Commission would probably have no problem authorizing using that much salt water, but they sure wouldn’t allow that much fresh water to be used, in an area of the state that is pretty arid already. We all better hope, however, that someone is monitoring those wells to make sure that they’re only using salt water, and, I suppose, that they’re taking the salt out of it before it goes into the air as steam.

Next: The public can comment on the water permit application until November 7, which is when the State Water Commission will consider issuing the water permit. And once the Health Department has decided if they believe Meridian’s air pollution numbers, there will be public hearings on whether to issue the air quality permit. That will be sometime next year.

And then there could be an oil refinery hard up against the border of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Meridian says they want to go online in 2018. Damn! I’ll keep you posted.


5 thoughts on “The Great Meridian Energy Smokestack Scam

  1. This is so outrageous but certainly in line with what our state’s leaders have been doing the last few years!! All for oil money!


  2. Here’s a few questions for you Jim:
    1. How far should your “safe zone” for a park (or a reservation) preclude development? 30 miles? 300 miles?
    2. Much as I love Medora, I’m having a little problem thinking a steam plume 3-miles away will ruin the visiting experience. In all the years I have driven Highway 83 to and from Bismarck, I found those coal plant plumes an interesting point of interest as I admired the landscape of western North Dakota. When I was living in Bismarck I never heard one lament about the ugliness of the Mandan refinery plume.
    3. Based on prior information, I’m under the impression there simply is no fresh water available in that area. That’s why we have spent so much to develop the Southwest Water supply. Making use of underground resources inspired the growth of this country in the 19th century.
    Here’s one more thought. Why don’t you and all your friends get together and produce a proposed map which would show where (if any) we could route a pipeline or build an industrial plant? After all you are all going to need some fuel for your hunting and fishing trips and to get to and from your protest camps.

    I still enjoy your writings and am happy to be on your list. Keep it up. But keep your eyes open for all the good things in North Dakota that have happened in our lifetime.


  3. Re: John Andrist’s comment, context does matter. A lot of people want to have as close to a natural experience as possible when they go to a national park. Not all, of course (or there would not be 36 foot RVs), but being away from industrialization is the point for, I daresay, most. Otherwise, why not go to a KOA? As a kid, I grew up on the Iron Range. We regarded the tailings piles (in various states of vegetation ranging from bare red rocks to considerable tree growth) as scenery, and a white plume from a stack is not necessarily a aesthetically hideous as the refinery below it. But context does matter, and the remark about what is an appropriate distance is just plain silly. Put it this way–cities zone some areas residential and some industrial or commercial because people don’t want to look at that stuff. If you can’t define an appropriate distance, heck, why not build it right next door?

    Regarding salt in the plume–when water is boiled any salt gets mostly left behind (distillation via vapor condensing, right? Or the mineral deposits in my old stove kettle due to my cast iron pipes and other minerals that come with the water). I don’t know how scrubbers work, but it stands to reason the operators are not going to want salts (and likely traces of radioactive minerals given the source) crusting over their equipment. It boils down (pun inevitable) to, I guess, what all is going on and what chemicals become vapor or particulates (so possibly some salt too?) riding the plume.


  4. Ever live down wind from a hog farm or paper mill? It stinks. So does living near an oil refinery stink? Yes. The smell of rotten eggs.

    Near the area surrounding an Oil Refinery, the stench of rotten eggs is nearly constant. It’s a sign that hydrogen sulfide is in the air, and residents say the chemicals they’ve come to associate with that smell are responsible for a host of health issues — from cancers to lung disease to nerve damage — that plague families in the area.

    Some of the odors presented included “gas oil” “crude oil” “diesel” “cracked naptha” and “DAF” (from the waste water facility). Sulfur was not among the odors available, but one that commonly emanates from the refinery.


  5. Some questions: 1. Who owns Meridian Energy? This is a billion dollar project. Who is financing it? The Meridian officials at the zoning hearings refused to say. Who owns this company? Exxon? Conoco-Phillips? Some California billionaires? Some Arab oil sheiks? The Chinese army? We need to know before we give them a piece of North Dakota. 2. What is the family relationship between Billings County Commissioner Joe Kessel and landowner Greg Kessel who is selling the land to Meridian and is listed as a special advisor to the Meridian Board of Directors? Is there any conflict of interest here? 3. Why couldn’t this project be moved 10-15 miles east to the industrial area along the west side of Dickinson? Why this site which the developers had to know would be very controversial? 4. What kind of nighttime lighting will this facility have? How far will it be visible? One of the glories of the ND badlands is the opportunity for totally dark skies. 5. Part of the plan is for hundreds of housing units, schools, roads and new businesses in Belfield- way in excess of what s needed for a two hundred employee refinery. Seems there are plans for major industrial development once the refinery is approved and built.


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