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Zoning change for refinery approved by Billings County

MEDORA, N.D.—The organizers of the Davis Refinery project proposed for the Belfield area cleared an early but major hurdle Wednesday at the regular meeting of the Billings County Commission.

After more than four hours of public questions, comments and informational presentations, including some remarks delivered by state health officials, commissioners agreed to rezone more than 715 acres of land from agricultural to industrial use to house the proposed $900 million, 55,000 barrels per day petroleum refinery planned by California-based Meridian Energy Group Inc.

Meridian Energy CEO Bill Prentice was at the meeting and said afterwards that he was "grateful" for the final decision.

"The county did a thorough job," Prentice said. "There are still questions, but those will be chased out in the air quality and water quality permit processes."

Prentice said the project as a whole should please its local stakeholders, but added that "it's going to be tough" getting the refinery to completion.

The site selected by Meridian Energy is just outside the town of Fryburg. The location is also about three miles from the edge of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. That proximity to the park, which receives maximum protection under the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Act, incurs more stringent air quality requirements for the permitting process.

Concerns about negative impacts on the airshed and the potential visibility of the refinery from park grounds led Wendy Ross, the park's superintendent, to ask the commission to deny the rezoning request.

Ross said after the Wednesday meeting that she expected the outcome, but felt she was able to "plead the park's case."

"I am concerned about park impacts from multiple sources, not just this facility," she said, adding that the park's officials already receive complaints about external oil infrastructure. " ... I do know when you start looking at incremental infrastructure and industrialization, it does tend to grow outwardly from this kind of decision."

Ross said she hoped the North Dakota Department of Health conducted its due diligence and that the department's processes could help protect the park.

Other community members who spoke against the rezoning said they weren't opposed to the concept of a local refinery, but didn't want the controversy and potential detraction to national park grounds that the chosen site brought along.

Those who spoke in favor of the facility did so in terms of the potential economic benefits the facility could offer in terms of employment and property tax dollars.

Dan Hedrington, a senior project manager with engineering firm SEH, a company working with Meridian Energy to plan the Davis Refinery project, said the facility would generate $2.7 million in annual taxes. Hedrington also said the refinery would create 1,100 construction jobs and 200 permanent staffing positions.

Billings County resident Allan Richard said he was "really glad" with the outcome of Wednesday's meeting.

"This could be a mini-boom to help the Belfield, Dickinson and Billings County area," Richard said, adding that he didn't think the refinery would negatively impact national park attendance. "Before this, if you'd told me the idea that they were going to bring a refinery to Billings County, I would have bet against it. I would have been better off on my lottery tickets. But here they are. I figure a person should take advantage of the job situation."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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