Tainted well water spurs property owner to action

Posted: Tuesday, January 05, 2010

FAIRBANKS - A North Pole property owner hopes to create a "citizen action committee" in response to the discovery of tainted water in city wells.

Flint Hills Resources announced in November that wells near its North Pole refinery had tested positive for sulfolane, a chemical with largely unknown long-term health effects. Since then, expanded testing determined that private wells as far as 2 ½ miles north of the refinery have been found with varying amounts of the chemical.

Sulfolane is used to make fuel and bonds easily with water. Flint Hills officials believe a sulfolane spill sometime before 2000 leached into the water table near the refinery.

Flint Hills officials have offered free testing and gone door to door to contact residents and provide them with bottled drinking water. Local and state officials have called the testing precautionary and Flint Hills' actions proactive.

Robert Bradley, however, is unimpressed. He hopes a grass roots movement can spur a better response.

"Giving us a water cooler and having a meeting is not cutting it," said Bradley, who lives in Fairbanks but owns nearly 70 acres of property affected by the tainted water.

He wants members of the still-forming citizens group to pool information while waiting for additional test results from the state's Department of Environmental Conservation and Division of Public Health.

Ann Farris, project manager with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said she has contacted Bradley and looks forward to working with a community group. "I certainly don't feel like there is anything to hide," Farris said. "We want to get as much information out there as possible as fast as possible."

The long-term effects of ingesting small amounts of sulfolane, a chemical used to make fuel, have not been proven. Serious health problems have been connected to the substance, but at much higher levels than any amount found in North Pole.

Farris said it takes weeks for accurate results to be obtained from tests. She hopes the lag time is not causing anxiety.

"I had hoped that we were getting information out to anyone who wanted it or needed it," Farris said.

Bradley's anxiety is up.

"It's pretty scary to me - with the health issue and now that your property becomes virtually worthless," he said.

Bradley recently started publicizing his effort to get the community group formed. On Saturday, he took out a newspaper ad that included his home phone number. He said he received dozens of responses, though most were from people reluctant to commit to any sort of group action.

"There's been a pretty good reaction, but most people don't want to get involved," Bradley said. "Not yet. They're kind of taking a wait-and-see type of approach."

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