Located south of Fairbanks, Alaska, the small city of North Pole keeps Christmas decorations up year-round and boasts cheerful street names related to the holiday.
But over the past decade, the village has been embroiled in a less happy circumstance involving groundwater containments. Released over decades by a refinery owned by Williams Alaska Petroleum Inc., a pollutant called sulfolane had been found in the community’s soil and groundwater. Williams faced a lawsuit by the state, which for three years had two Ciresi Conlin LLP attorneys as allies.
Jan Conlin and Mathew Korte became involved in the case as counsel for Flint Hills Resources, which bought the refinery from Williams in 2004. Later the city discovered the refinery solvent sulfolane in its groundwater. In addition to immediately providing clean water to affected residents, Flint Hills agreed to help build a $100 million water system for North Pole as it, with the state, sued Williams.
Conlin found the case “intellectually challenging” as she learned the details of how materials travel through substrates of different soils and how permafrost adds another level of complexity. The danger presented to public health was another important piece of the case, while specific instances of harm were not.
“It’s very difficult to prove, but I can tell you that there are a number of residents up in North Pole who are more convinced that their illnesses, their dog’s death — you name it — were due to [sulfolane], but that wasn’t anything we needed to prove in the case,” Conlin said.
Based on the groundwater modelers’ data, the court found Williams responsible for 90% of the sulfolane release. It ruled the company must pay more than $80 million in past damages and other costs, along with ongoing liability for future remediation at the site. Conlin liked being on a team with the state’s attorneys in which shared learning led to an “intense but very enjoyable experience.”
It also represented the firm’s values. “When we started the firm, we wanted cases that involved working for a common good, and I think Alaska case speaks to that,” Conlin said.
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