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Board approves permit for Burke refinery

Posted 10/27/15 (Tue)

By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
The Burke County Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved an unlimited conditional use permit for the purpose of oil refining to Ash, Inc. of Simi Valley, Calif., at their public hearing and meeting Oct. 19. 
The issue now moves to county commissioners for final consideration.
The zoning board, with all in favor, also approved the company’s application to rezone the former railroad right of way for the purpose of a railspur. Doug Bonsness of rural Columbus owns the land for the proposed oil refinery site and railspur, and he is selling the property to Ash, Inc.
The location is in Section 5, Faith Township, south of Columbus, which is the site of an old coalmine. 
“It’s wasteland,” Bonsness said. “The land would go from being used for coal to processing oil.”
Albert Howell, president of Ash, Inc., said the oil refinery would have a production capacity of approximately 20,000 barrels of diesel fuel a day. 
Residents who attended the public hearing voiced support for the project. 
“We should embrace it,” said Shane Oas of Columbus. “It is going to employ approximately 80 people when it’s all said and done. I believe that this would be good for all of Burke County. It’s a no brainer.”
Concerns raised were whether the railspur property would be storing diesel onsite and possible devaluation of surrounding land. Howell stated that the company does not plan on using the railspur site for storage. He cautioned if train cars would become delayed for some reason, trucks would have to remain at the site until transport was available.
Commissioner Janet Cron addressed whether properties would devalue. While that is not something the board controls, she said there hasn’t been a reduction in area property value for agricultural sites surrounding commercial sites so far.
Cron said when she attended a recent VisionWest meeting, the ND Department of Commerce showed a map from Texas to North Dakota. 
“Burke County is bare,” Cron said. “There’s nothing we’ve done. We need to pick up our big boy pants and put them on.”    
Marla MacBeth, the planning and zoning administrator, and States Attorney Amber Fiesel then reviewed the conditions   placed on the conditional use permit draft.
Howell and Bret Wolz of Ash, Inc. addressed two conditions that concerned them in the draft.
“We are overall pleased with the conditions,” Wolz said.
Wolz sought a tweak on terminology about runoff due to concerns the present wording would result in cutting off water to downstream landowner  Ron Erickson. 
“The condition should probably read that all runoff from materials and handling areas be collected and dealt with,” Wolz said.
The second condition Ash Inc. took issue with was putting a four-year limit on the permit.
Fiesel said the time limit ensures the company is being a good neighbor.
Wolz said the semi-annual report that Ash, Inc. will provide to the county, per the conditions, should reassure the county.
“This limit would be a death knell for the project,” Howell added. “Our joint venture partners wouldn’t want to invest their money with that limit.”
Howell added that since their company is private, he doesn’t think the government should control their construction timelines.
“It’s not reasonable for you to tell us how slow or how fast we can build,” Howell said. “A partially built refinery won’t benefit us either.”
Wolz added that investors in an oil refinery typically wait four to five years before they see any return on their money and 12-15 years before they recover their investment. 
“Investors I’ve talked to are not tremendously interested in a limit that won’t allow them to recover their money,” Wolz said.
The commissioners then passed a motion to change the wording regarding site runoff and dropped the four-year limit on the conditional use permit.    
“We were prepared to go elsewhere,” Howell said, “but this is the right piece of property.”
Wolz added: “We really appreciate the county and their staff working with us. Now we can tell investors the community wants this project.”
Burke County Planning and Zoning Commissioners include Marla MacBeth, the Planning and Zoning administrator, Lisa Knutson, David Sellie, Tony Pandolfo, Ken Christensen, Arlo Griesbach, Janet Cron and Ted Hawbaker.