BELFIELD, N.D. — The developer of a controversial oil refinery that would be built only about 3 miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota owes employees about $607,000, according to a lawsuit filed in Texas.
Meridian Energy Group Inc., listed as a South Dakota corporation doing business in Houston, is being sued for "refusal to pay outstanding wages, salaries and bonuses" to three current and four former employees.
The "start-up company" has been working on what has been called the Davis Refinery for several years and has obtained a state air quality permit to build its "innovative and environmentally compliant" refinery on 150 acres near the national park.
The employees have asked for a jury trial in the breach of contract case.
The lawsuit said as early as the spring of 2018, Meridian began to "sporadically defer payment of weekly payroll to employees due to alleged financial woes."
In March of last year, a memo to employees said the company continued to have financial troubles. After that time, they "regularly" began to defer payroll payments and promised bonuses or "incentive deals" to the workers, the lawsuit said.
However, the lawsuit states that even up to this month the company continues its "unlawful practice of delayed or partial compensation" to the seven employees, including the three who the lawsuit states still work for the energy company.
Two of the current or former employees in the lawsuit live in Minnesota, while the other five reside in Texas.
Asking for the most money is vice president of marketing Julia Olguin, who is asking for $247,630 and said she wasn't paid as of July 10.
Seeking the second most in back pay is operations manager Todd Tooley, who lives in Lakeville, Minn., and is seeking $192,813.
The other Minnesotan is former executive vice president of operations Thomas Johnson, of Duluth, who worked for the company for about three years and is suing for $26,197.
The other four employees, all from Texas, and the amounts they are seeking in pay and bonuses include former project manager Curtis Smith, $57,350; former civil engineer Shane Frazier, $28,767; former planning manager Peter Long, $53,084; and junior analyst Celestina Olguin, $29,483.
According to reports by Meridian, the company is still pursuing financing for the project, with expected costs reaching $1 billion.
As recently as late last month, the North Dakota Supreme Court denied the National Parks Conservation Association’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that the state unlawfully issued an air quality permit to Meridian.
The association contended that the refinery would release substantial amounts of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous pollutants into the national park and surrounding communities as it processes 55,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
In 2019, the district courts ruled in favor of Meridian, determining that the state’s issuance of a minor air quality permit, based on estimated pollutant analysis provided by Meridian Energy Group, was appropriate.
In response to the allegations of lack of controls, the state argued that its permit adequately required emissions controls and oversight by requiring a leak detection system using an optical imaging camera, in addition to other requirements such as having monitors at the perimeter of the facility to measure benzene levels.
In a statement from the company after the ruling, William Prentice, Meridian’s Chairman & CEO, said: “This is a huge victory for our company, for the industry and most importantly for the people of North Dakota, particularly the communities that will see an immediate impact from the jobs created by the Davis Refinery."