The oil refinery that exploded earlier this year in Superior, Wisconsin – triggering a widespread evacuation and fears that a highly toxic chemical could be released into the air – had never been inspected by the federal agency responsible for regulating such facilities, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has learned.
The sporadic oversight of hydrogen fluoride, which is used by refineries to increase the quality of gasoline, has raised concerns among city leaders, lawmakers and a hazardous chemical expert who calls the chemical dangerous and “lethal.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had planned to inspect the Husky Energy refinery for the first time this summer, according to an agency spokesperson, but a date had not been scheduled.
The chemical never leaked during the April explosion, which was caused by a valve failure, but it is considered so dangerous that the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is now investigating to determine whether the blast even came close to causing an accidental release.
- Superior Refinery Explosion Occurred during Crude Oil Heating, Extraction Process
- Report: Worn Valve Caused Explosion at Superior Refinery
Companies like Husky that store more than 1,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride, are required to submit safety response plans to the EPA every five years.
A spokesperson for Husky Energy said in a statement the “…emergency plans we file with regulators adequately prepared the refinery and surrounding community.”
A statement from Husky Energy reads, in part:
The RMP and other emergency plans we file with regulators adequately prepared the refinery and surrounding community. We file multiple sets of plans with various agencies, according to specified criteria, addressing what to do in the event of potential emergencies. These include identification of potential evacuation zones based on emergency scenarios and wind direction. Emergency planning maps also identify priority facilities within emergency zones, such as schools, day cares, hospitals and care homes.
The Superior Refinery works closely with Douglas County and the Superior Fire Department under a mutual aid agreement which helps ensure the community and industry are prepared to respond jointly to serious events such as the April 26th fire. In addition, our HF unit has multiple, dedicated levels of protection, including the water deluge system, which worked as it was designed to on April 26th.
However, the EPA, which has been responsible for regulating the safe storage of hydrogen fluoride since the 1990s, acknowledged those safety plans are only reviewed during on-site inspections – which were not conducted in Superior prior to the explosion.
“The EPA assumes a company, a well-run company, has taken proper safety procedures,” a spokesperson said.
Lack of Faith in EPA
That level of oversight alarmed Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis) who has joined the mayors of Superior and Duluth in calling on refineries to stop using hydrogen fluoride in their manufacturing process.
“At the end of the day, there are safer alternatives,” Hornstein said.
Hornstein, who has pushed for stronger state regulation of the oil industry for several years, said he is particularly concerned about the Andeavor refinery in St. Paul Park.
A hydrogen fluoride leak there could potentially affect 1.7 million people in a 19-mile radius, according to the company’s own worst case projection.
Those plans are shared with local emergency responders, hospitals and schools in the surrounding area.
The school district’s facilities department “works in partnership with the refinery fire chief and emergency response team to ensure the district is able to respond at a moment’s notice,” according to a district spokesperson.
However, the Andeavor refinery – including its safety plans – has not been inspected by the EPA since June 2007, an agency spokesperson confirmed to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.
“I don’t have a lot of faith the EPA will help us,” Hornstein said. “This is one of the most dangerous chemicals in our midst.”
A statement from Andeavor St. Paul Park Refinery reads, in part:
Our Emergency Response Plans comply with all regulatory requirements and are reviewed and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and state and local agencies. We also conduct simulation and training exercises following the guidelines of the National Preparedness Response Exercise Program. These drills provide opportunities for emergency and first responders to discuss and train in simulated, non-urgent situations. Locally, we regularly drill and train with local responders, including Washington County, St. Paul Park, Newport, and Cottage Grove Emergency Response teams.
Our goal is to never have a HF release, but we are prepared to protect our community.
‘Absolutely Catastrophic’ Potential
The explosion at the Husky refinery “had the potential to be absolutely catastrophic,” Superior Mayor Jim Paine said last April.
Dr. Ron Koopman, a retired chemical researcher who has studied the risks of hydrogen fluoride for more than thirty years, said the chemical destroys lung tissue.
“As soon as I found out about it, I realized it was one of the most terrifying industrial chemicals I had ever run across,” Koopman said in a recent interview at his home in Livermore, Cali.
In the 1980s, Koopman’s team at Livermore Labs was hired by the oil industry to determine what would happen in a possible worst case scenario where a large amount of the chemical was accidentally discharged.
A video of a test conducted in the Nevada desert shows the liquid chemical turns into a vapor upon release and travels downwind a toxic gas cloud.
“The cloud stayed three feet off the ground,” Koopman said. “That was the scary part.”
The oil industry later issued a disclaimer on the study it funded, claiming the test was conducted under unique circumstances and “cannot be directly used to estimate the consequences of an accidental release of HF.”
Yet, Koopman’s research was later cited by the EPA in a 1993 report to Congress that stated hydrogen fluoride “could pose a significant threat to the public, especially….at facilities located in densely populated areas.”
The agency added that the “likelihood of an accidental release…can be kept low” if refineries “…maintain safe facilities.”
The EPA was responsible for making sure that happened but does not have enough inspectors to conduct regular reviews of safety plans, according to an agency spokesperson.
“You can’t expect it to work if it isn’t inspected,” Koopman said. “It’s not something that should be ignored.”