Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has changed his tune on a major environmental issue in his state of Alaska. Just months ago he was concerned about job losses. But seeing an opportunity to attack "the Koch Brothers," his environmentalist side has emerged.
Asked by the Anchorage Daily News to name one Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that he supports, Begich cited "the regulation that will force the Koch brothers to clean up the polluted groundwater they have left behind at Flint Hills refinery."
Begich was referring to an EPA settlement last month under which Flint Hills Resources, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, will pay $80,000 in penalties to resolve allegations that it failed to properly clean up contamination at a now-defunct refinery that the company bought in 2004.
When Flint Hills announced it would shut down the refinery this year, Begich was concerned with the move’s economic impacts and encouraged state regulators to minimize cleanup costs. He even praised the company’s cleanup efforts.
Now that Koch Industries and its fraternal libertarian owners have become political punching bags for Democratic senators and candidates around the country, Begich’s rhetoric is more critical of the company.
Environmental contamination at the site, located in North Pole, Alaska, has been an issue for decades.
"Leaks and spills of petroleum and industrial wastewater have occurred ever since the refinery’s start-up in 1977," the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation notes on its website.
The DEC first noticed the presence of the chemical sulfolane associated with petroleum refining activities in 2001, three years before Flint Hills bought the facility. When the Koch subsidiary took over, levels of the chemical were still below those that, under Alaska law, required cleanup efforts.
However, after consulting with EPA, the DEC reduced that threshold, requiring Flint Hills, then the owner, to initiate cleanup efforts.
Koch insists that it was proactive in those efforts and took steps to provide potable water to residents of North Pole, where the refinery was located. The DEC lauds Flint Hills’ work on its website.
"Flint Hills responded immediately with caution, providing individual notifications and an alternative clean water supply to all residents whose drinking water wells were or were likely to be contaminated," DEC says.
Begich himself has lauded Flint Hills’ efforts to mitigate environmental damage and assist residents affected by it.
Flint Hills converted the facility into a transportation terminal in February, citing extensive costs associated with the cleanup effort and continued operation of the refinery.
Begich at the time noted the company’s "commitment to provide North Pole residents who live in the contaminated groundwater area with alternative water sources and to sustain their remediation efforts."
Other local officials also lauded the company’s remediation efforts.
"As well as being an economic driver in North Pole as part of the sulfolane cleanup process, Flint Hills has spent nearly $8 million in infrastructure upgrades to the water and sewer utility system to ensure North Pole City residents have a dedicated clean source of drinking water," noted North Pole mayor Bryce Ward in February.
Ward also expressed concern that the decision by EPA and DEC to reduce the sulfolane levels necessary to conduct cleanup efforts would unnecessarily impede efforts to get the refinery up and running again.
"I fear that the stringent sulfolane cleanup level … may be too much of a burden for the refinery to achieve in an area where all residents have been given an alternative source of drinking water," Ward wrote.
Begich at the time expressed similar concerns that the cost of cleaning up the refinery site would stifle efforts to keep it in operation. The senator urged Gov. Sean Parnell to address "the cost of cleanup on the land" in order to minimize adverse economic consequences of the refinery’s closure.
Flint Hills has not reconsidered the shift from refining at that site, though it notes that it has provided former employees of the North Pole refinery with jobs at other Flint Hills operations in the lower 48 states.