Home / U.S. / Superior, Wisconsin, the explosion of the refinery forces massive evacuations

Superior, Wisconsin, the explosion of the refinery forces massive evacuations

  A large fireball erupts during a series of fires and explosions at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior, Wis. Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)
A large fireball erupts during a series of fires and explosions at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior, Wis. Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)

SUPERIOR, Wis. – A series of explosions and fires rocked the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior on Thursday, sending a black cloud of acrid smoke through the city, forcing massive evacuations and sending several people to local hospitals.

Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital officials said that 11 victims of a combined refinery were confirmed at the Duluth and Superior facilities. one with a "serious explosion injury".

No deaths were reported and all employees and hundreds of contractors working at the refinery were counted.

No details were given about the extent of the old refinery dam or what caused the initial explosion that occurred just after 10 a.m., apparently in a tower near giant asphalt storage tanks. One of those tanks was punctured, throwing liquid asphalt into the ground for hours.

A second, larger fire broke out just after noon with multiple explosions throughout the afternoon, sending a much larger black cloud flying miles.

Kollin Schade, manager of the Husky refinery, told reporters that the facility was preparing for a May closure for service and inspection at the time of the explosion and that most of the fire and smoke was of asphalt.

The firefighters stayed waiting for several hours until it was clear that a potentially dangerous toxic chemical, hydrogen fluoride, did not run the risk of exploding and then went into "offensive operations" with foam and water.

The head of the fire brigade Scott Gordon, shortly before 7 p.m. m. He declared that the fire was outside. On Thursday night a new liquid Schade fire was ignited, described as "a heavy material very similar to a bunker fuel that is not as heavy as the asphalt but still very heavy", that came from a valve that could not be turned off .

Gordon said the fire will continue to burn until all the liquid burns. Thursday night was unknown the amount of liquid that remained or how long the fire would last. Gordon said he is confident that the fire is isolated and will not spread or grow.


At 3 p.m. Press conference, Paine said that everyone within a 3-mile radius of the refinery should evacuate and stay out. City and county officials also said that everyone who lived or worked 10 miles south of the fire should also evacuate because of the potentially toxic nature of the spreading smoke plume.

"If in doubt … just leave, find a place to go," Paine said, adding that "potentially all" the city's 27,000 residents might have to evacuate.

Although Paine had said he hoped that most residents would be allowed to return at dusk on Thursday, he announced a press conference late in the afternoon in which the evacuation remained current and would be re-evaluated during all night.

"We hope to lift that evacuation as soon as I feel satisfied and our team is satisfied that the site is safe and that there are no more risks at the refinery or in the air surrounding the refinery, Superior and Duluth," he said. Paine.

At 8 p. m. the city of Duluth issued a "shelter-in-place" notice for the area that includes the Fond du Lac neighborhood east to the NC ore docks in West Duluth, and up to the top of the hill, as winds were predicted They will change in that direction during the night. "Residents with health problems are advised to close windows and doors and remain locked at night as residual smoke from the refinery fire in Superior could be a respiratory irritant if inhaled," the statement said. city ​​

. that anyone affected by the fire could call 800-686-3192 to get help with food, transportation, or other concerns.

Essentia Health closed all of its top locations, including the evacuation of all patients from its Superior hospital, and all patients went to the Duluth facility. The University of Wisconsin-Superior evacuated and sent students to the College of St. Scholastics in Duluth.

Many of Superior's main roads were obstructed by traffic jam during the afternoon when residents tried to get away from the plume of smoke or recover loved ones. those who evacuated.

Residents who evacuated and needed shelter met at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center as the main site.

Senior school officials said that students from public schools in the city were evacuated to the Amsoil headquarters in Superior where parents were waiting for traffic jams to pick up their children. The superintendent of high schools, Janna Stevens, said Thursday afternoon that all students were safe at home or with their families.

The Duluth Transit Authority sent buses to help move the evacuees to safety.

UWS, All Public Superior Schools, Maple Public Schools and Wisconsin Technical College are closed every Friday.

Many businesses also closed and evacuated, including Superior Water, Light and Power and Superior Family YMCA, service stations and some grocery stores.

The Coast Guard also imposed a closed security zone near the Superior entrance and the Upper harbor due to the dangers of smoke. It was not clear when that would relax.


The Superior refinery is one of approximately 50 nationwide that uses hydrogen fluoride to process high octane gasoline. An acid catalyst, hydrogen fluoride is one of several toxic chemicals regulated federally in the refinery, such as propane and butane.

The refinery can handle about 78,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride, according to federal records from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Schade, the manager of the refinery, did not answer specific questions about hydrogen fluoride on Thursday, saying only that his presence at the refinery was one of the reasons why the evacuation was under way.

A senior Fire Department official said that having the fire extended to the hydrogen fluoride tank would be at worst, the situation would worsen, and other experts said the gases could spread a toxic cloud of gas to miles away.

A 2011 report from the Center for Public Integrity called hydrogen fluoride an "extremely toxic" chemical that, if released into the atmosphere, can spread rapidly.

"It's like chlorine gas, it's an extremely toxic gas cloud that can move in leeward miles," Fred Millar, an independent consultant and activist based in Washington, DC, told the News Tribune about toxicity issues. refinery

. "If your local officials are not explaining how concerned they are with that, then they should be." It will be a disaster. That's what evacuation (distances) should be based on. "


The mayor said that the municipal agencies and the refineries have trained together for disasters in the installation, calling Thursday's event "the nightmare scenario" for which they train.

"This community knows that we have an oil refinery. We are prepared for this We have done extensive training, "said Paine." We have invested in equipment and infrastructure. We probably have the best fire department in the country to respond to an event like this. "

Mel Duvall, manager of media and affairs for Husky Energy, based in Calgary, said he had no information about where he was inside the refinery. The initial explosion occurred.The company was planning a five-week change from May, which means parts or the entire plant would be shut down.

Officials at Enbridge Energy, which owns a massive pipeline terminal and an installation of storage with millions of gallons of petroleum products stored near the refinery, said its installation was not affected.

"The Husky Terminal is across the street from the Enbridge Superior Terminal. This incident has not affected the operations of the Enbridge Superior Terminal. Most employees at the Enbridge terminal have been evacuated except for a small team that continues to monitor the situation, "said Jennifer Smith, an Enbridge spokeswoman. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Husky employees and their families."


In 2015, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the former owner of the Calumet refinery with $ 21,000 for emergency response and violations of flammable liquids. Those violations were marked as resolved and the problems resolved by the end of that year.

It was OSHA's only enforcement action taken against the refinery in the past 20 years, according to a search of the agency's database.

2012 and 2013 there were four reports of hydrogen sulfide emissions due to power outages, according to the National Response Center.

The refinery has not been fined for hazardous waste since 1999, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The refinery's most recent Risk Management Plan was presented to the EPA in 2012 and states: "In the unlikely event of a catastrophic release, the refinery, working in conjunction with local emergency management personnel, is well prepared to respond and mitigate the adverse consequences for the community or the environment. "


Husky Energy concluded its purchase of the refinery in November, spending $ 492 million to acquire the Cal Umet refinery . The Canadian refiner said there were no planned changes to the facility, but planned to continue with a $ 30 million improvement initiated by Calumet.

About 180 people are employed at the only Wisconsin refinery, which provides Northland with gasoline, asphalt and other special petroleum products. Approximately 50,000 barrels (or 2.3 million gallons) of oil per day can be processed at the refinery, located at 2407 Stinson Ave.

Along with the refinery, Husky took control of two asphalt terminals and two product terminals, one maritime terminal, 3.6 million barrels in storage and a commercialization business.

The Superior refinery was built in 1950, acquired by Murphy Oil in 1958 and sold to Calumet based in Indianapolis for $ 475 million in 2011.

Husky Energy said that the Superior refinery had averaged 37,000 barrels per day of production in the first three months of this year, according to a earnings report published on Thursday morning.

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