On the morning of April 26, as Superior’s Husky Energy refinery was preparing for a five-week maintenance shutdown, a reactor that converts 13,000 barrels per day of crude oil into gasoline exploded.
Debris from the blast punctured a tank of asphalt, causing a massive fire. Eleven Husky employees were injured, one seriously, and 27,000 people were evacuated in Douglas County and along the Duluth lakefront.
We were lucky. A “worst-case scenario” blast could have killed 180,000, according to a 2011 report by the Center for Public Integrity.
Nearly two months later, elected officials remain tight-lipped, and often defensive, about their ability to regulate Husky and mitigate any remaining threats to public safety.
On May 14, the University of Wisconsin-Extension and the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve hosted a listening session at Superior Middle School. The approximately 50 people in attendance were divided up into 12 groups and asked to respond to three questions:
•What concerns do you have about Husky Energy following the fire?
•What concerns do you have about emergency services and government response to the fire?
•What concerns do you have about the environment following the fire?
The need to “dialogue not debate” was emphasized. Questions ranged from whether there would be soil or water contamination, to what exactly went wrong and what’s being done to ensure that it won’t happen again.
Ten days later, UW-Extension (UWEX) released a Listening Session Report, listing 30 pages of questions—most of which still haven’t been answered to this day.
Extension also prepared an “After Action Report” for the 52 agencies that responded on April 26, including Douglas County, but, “At this time, we do not anticipate compiling a companion document with answers to each question,” according to the UWEX website.
Douglas County UWEX Chair James Anderson, who also sits on Husky’s Community Advisory Panel, declined to release a copy of the After Action Report and referred the request to Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen.
Sandeen’s office didn’t respond for three weeks, and then replied two days before press with a copy of the Listening Session Report, but not the After Action Report.
UWEX Area Director Mary Pardee referred the request to each of the 52 responding agencies, seemingly unaware that the agencies are referring requests to UWEX. Typically, each agency would do its own report independently, so the public can examine the results for themselves.
“I think it is concerning that there has been no effort from any officials to answer the questions that citizens asked out of concern for their families’ safety,” says Kevin Swanberg, a UMD instructor who emailed the Superior City Council on May 24, asking about the status of responses to the questions raised at the listening session.
Swanberg’s only reply came from Eighth District Councilor Craig Sutherland: “Do you want this refinery shit [sic] down? Do you know of any refineries that use [hydrogen fluoride] still? Also, these big companies in town have a great working relationship/partnership with our city. Enbridge, Husky, and Amsoil have done amazing things Simone it comes to volunteering. [sic]”
For the record, Swanberg does not want the refinery shut down; he just didn’t feel the Listening Session Report accurately summarized the issues raised.
“I am concerned that we’ve been presented this illusion that Husky and the City care, but they really just want us to forget and move on so that industry can go on doing whatever it pleases in this under-regulated state. If nobody answers all these questions [that Husky and the City] themselves requested, then, really, this is all just a show. It doesn’t mean anything.”
One of the gravest concerns is Husky’s continued use of hydrogen fluoride, which is used to increase the gasoline output of crude oil and to make it more clean burning. At the Superior refinery, 15,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride are stored an estimated 200 feet from the tanks that exploded on April 26.
Inhaling the colorless gas can damage the lungs and irritate the eyes and respiratory tract, even at low levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Inhaling high levels or in combination with skin contact can cause life-threatening irregular heartbeat or fluid buildup in the lungs. Even small amounts of skin contact can be fatal before it has enough time to cause pain. Those who survive exposure are at risk of chronic lung disease.
Hydrogen fluoride is not flammable and does not explode. The risk is that an explosion like the one at Husky could have showered the Twin Ports in lethal gas.
Hydrogen fluoride was introduced to the refining industry during the Second World War. Since then, safer methods of producing gasoline have been discovered. For the last five years, Chevron has been using ionic liquids, which have similar acidic properties, but without the volatility, and produce a higher quality gasoline.
The United Steelworkers, one of the largest unions to represent refinery workers, strongly opposes the use of hydrogen fluoride. A 2010 survey found that 21 of the 23 refineries surveyed were responsible for over 293 process safety violations in a five-year period.
The refineries had 131 incidents where hydrogen fluoride was released or was nearly released. According to the same survey, the union has recommended that the oil industry, “Commit to ending the use of HF alkylation and replacing it with safer alternatives as soon as possible.”
Despite this, 50 refineries in the United States, including Husky, continue to use hydrogen fluoride. The United Steelworkers has not succeeded in negotiations for its removal at any oil refinery, and Husky has not made any commitment to switching to ionic liquids or solid catalysts, two of the safest available replacements.
“I am concerned about the viability of this greater community if our elected representatives do not take necessary and immediate actions to get HF out of this community,” says Trudy Fredericks, a Superior resident and department assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
“The risks are real and well documented. Pedestrian safety, a more vibrant downtown, and community gardens are all wonderful things, but the reality is that fewer people are going to want to invest anything in this area if they are forced to do so under the risk of death by HF. Elected reps have stated repeatedly that public safety is their primary responsibility. HF is an immediate threat in this community and it needs to go.”
After April 26, local officials initially took a strong stance against Husky’s use of hydrogen fluoride. On May 1, Superior Mayor Jim Paine posted on Facebook: “I asked [Husky] to discontinue its use and convert to a safer chemical process and to report back to me on any and all cost and infrastructure challenges that might prevent them from doing so. In the meantime, I asked them to disclose all of the safety measures they had and still have in place that prevent this chemical from harming the public as well as any other relevant facts regarding HF so that the public can remain informed during this debate.”
Since then, Paine has not offered any public updates or publicly increased pressure for Husky to remove it. Murphy Oil, then owners of the refinery, in 2011, stated they would look into alternatives to HF, which ultimately led to nothing. To demonstrate the risks imposed by the Superior refinery, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Murphy Oil for “willful” violation of deactivated alarms in the fluid catalytic cracking unit—the same type of reactor that caused the April 26 fire.
Across the bridge in Duluth, Mayor Emily Larson released her only public statement on May 1: “I am calling on Husky to publicly commit to eliminating hydrogen fluoride from their oil refining process. Husky has been provided with a free pass to reconsider their position for its use, and explore safer alternatives.”
Larson has not reported any progress on the issue since May, and didn’t mention hydrogen fluoride in her alert.
Larson issued a “Shelter in Place” alert for Fond du Lac and West Duluth at 7:57 p.m. on April 26. Her press release warned: “Residents with health concerns are advised to close windows and doors and stay indoors overnight as residual smoke from the refinery fire in Superior could be a respiratory irritant if inhaled.”
For a “Shelter in Place” during a Chemical Emergency, the Centers for Disease Control advise locking doors and windows to create a stronger seal, making sure sink and toilet drain traps have water to prevent airflow through pipes, and taping plastic over all the windows.
Superior’s evacuation order for ten miles south, two miles north, three miles east and west was not lifted until 6 a.m. on April 27. The Chemical Safety Board is currently conducting an investigation.
So far, the Superior City Council has been silent about the refinery disaster. It has not appeared on the agenda for any council meeting in the months since, despite community members requesting that the council address it.
Superior resident Chris Peterson sent emails to the City Council, Douglas County Supervisors, State Representative Nick Milroy, and State Senator Janet Bewley, voicing concern about the continued use of hydrogen fluoride.
Milroy responded, “Like you I am not happy about the HF tank and will be working with Mayor Paine on this.”
Douglas County Supervisor Pete Clark responded, “I am aware HF is more dangerous and sometimes cents become more important than sense to some companies. Husky is too new to know if that is the case or not.”
None of the other elected officials replied to Peterson, except to ascertain his address and tell him that he doesn’t live within their district. “I am disappointed that I’ve not heard anything from many of the other city councilors and have not received any progress updates on the status of the HF. I am concerned that Husky will rebuild using HF if representatives don’t act.”
Husky Energy purchased the Superior refinery from Calumet in 2017. According to its website, Husky was founded in Cody, Wyoming, in 1938. It is now based in Calgary. When I initially asked Husky for comment about a month ago, they referred to me an online forum, where I submitted questions, but no one ever answered.
When asked again about a week ago, Husky Media Relations Advisor Kim Guttormson replied via email: “Thanks for giving us an opportunity to provide you with information. As part of our assessment of the refinery’s configuration, we’ll be evaluating all facility operations, including HF. We are committed to looking at alternatives, however, any decision would be dependent on the new configuration and we are not yet at that stage. Investigations are ongoing and once that work has concluded, we’ll be able to finish our assessment.”
To date, there has been no public action by the state legislature or the Douglas County Board of Supervisors. Of all the elected officials I asked for comment, only Douglas County Supervisor Pete Clark replied. “I believe this decision falls more to state agencies.”
While Clark is correct that the County can’t take action, the City can. The State of Wisconsin has “home rule,” an article in the state constitution granting municipalities the ability to govern themselves. In 1989, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Local Union No. 487, IAFF-CIO v. City of Eau Claire that a municipality may act even in an area of statewide concern, so long as the ordinance does not infringe on “the spirit” of any statewide law.
The city council could pass an ordinance banning the use of hydrogen fluoride and modified hydrogen fluoride within city limits. The state legislature could mandate review by a state environmental agency.
Oil refineries in Wisconsin currently file Risk Management Plans with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which does not regulate hydrogen fluoride. The EPA regulates drilling or production operations such as the development of secure storage tanks (e.g.., to prevent waste from contaminating rivers or oceans), the control of emissions from storage tanks, refineries, and natural gas plants. The Department of Energy regulates capacity. OSHA regulates the safety of employees.
Fred Millar, a retired sociology professor from the State of Virginia and a national expert on chemical facility risks and emergency planning, has been analyzing the April 26 Husky Refinery fire and explosion.
“Husky misled Mayor Paine on the gravity of the hydrogen fluoride toxic gas disaster risk,” say Millar. “And Husky and the mayor, in turn, misled the community in their initial press conferences, saying the main risk was the smoke and a too-large evacuation. Only when informed media reporters pressed the refinery did it admit the event could have been a catastrophe.
“Lack of transparency and systematic failure of democratic institutions, including those intended by Congress to provide Community Right to Know, so citizens could press for disaster risk reductions. An at-risk community kept in the dark on disaster risks puts itself and its first responders at risk. Ongoing withholding from at-risk citizens of key hydrogen fluoride risk information by Local Emergency Planning Committees in both Duluth and Superior, by the multiple responding agencies who have conducted After Action ‘Hot Wash’ reviews, and by the facility’s Community Advisory Panel.
“The main mechanisms available for citizens to mandate non-disaster alternatives...are use of local authorities for zoning and for public health and safety. The potential for any kind of national level assistance from federal agencies is nil. The current administration is fully immersed in actively gutting the national US EPA chemical accident prevention regulations provided by the Obama Administration in 2016.”
To date, there have been no fines or violations issued by the Department of Natural Resources or the EPA. Last year, Husky was fined for air emissions violations, which ended in negotiations between the school district and Husky. Husky ultimately purchased new school buses.
Husky’s Community Advisory Panel (CAP), which includes UW-Extension Chair James Anderson, who led the listening session, has not yet provided an opportunity for citizens to speak with Husky. According to Marysue Knowles, of the West-Virginia-based PR firm Ann Green Communications, which facilitates the local CAP, roughly 20 “community stakeholders” hold regular meetings.
The group has been around for “some 20 years,” according Knowles. When asked who sits on the CAP, she replied, “I trust you understand why I cannot divulge panel member information...The meetings aren’t closed, but I need to give the panel a heads-up. People can’t just show up when they please.”
The next meeting is taking place at an undisclosed date and location. The request for five Superior residents to attend that meeting has not yet received any response.
Superior resident Christopher Linder picked up his children at Lake Superior Elementary on April 26. The scene he encountered was like “a disaster movie. Everything is so subtle and it’s almost like it’s too quiet and everyone has this sense of urgency in their eyes and all the kids are looking at their teachers like, ‘What do I do now?’”
Linder took his kids and headed south out of town. “I’m not going back to my house to get my stuff. Forget about it. My daughter goes, ‘Dad, one of the teachers threw up in the hallway.’”
Because it was the fluid catalytic cracking unit that was damaged in the explosion, Husky must either repair or replace it before alkylation can begin again. In other words, the Twin Ports is facing a deadline: If action isn’t taken on hydrogen fluoride before the refinery is rebuilt, we may be stuck with it—at least until the next disaster.
“Growing up, Linder says, “I always heard my parents say, if [the refinery] goes up, we’re all going with it. Jokingly. Never thought it would actually happen.”