The next few months will be critical in deciding the level of risk from a chemical release and disaster that will be allowed to be reimposed by Husky Energy on its workforce and on the citizens of the Twin Ports. The company, no doubt, will be happy to provide volumes of information to the mayors of Superior and Duluth on why it should rebuild as before — without a large capital expenditure to eliminate its refinery’s use of hydrogen fluoride. The upgrade would result in a much safer facility.
While the fire and explosions on April 26 were in close proximity to the facility’s hydrogen fluoride tank — as close as 150 feet, according to estimates — a disaster was averted, in part, due to the sheer luck that no large piece of steel shrapnel, thrown by an explosion, struck and punctured the tank. That would have released a deadly toxic gas cloud into Superior and/or Duluth, depending on the direction and force of the wind.
The refinery, last year, under its previous owner Calumet, provided a risk-management plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a report mandated by two federal community right-to-know laws. The plan calculated that a hydrogen fluoride release from the Superior refinery could travel 22 miles downwind. Therefore, the vulnerable zone around the facility, where toxic gas could cause death or serious injury, includes 180,000 residents.
The day of the fire and explosions, company officials studiously deflected questions about this, withholding it from at-risk citizens. Their initial secrecy could have been fatal had a serious toxic gas been released and had a lack of serious community emergency planning led to bungled evacuations.
If the company rebuilds to continue using hydrogen fluoride, it only resets the risk to the Twin Ports and to its own employees at the same disastrous and dangerous level as before.
Husky Energy’s un-American withholding of the disaster risk in the first hours of the fire and explosions in April flew in the face of federal law. Legislation passed by Congress in 1986 and 1990 established that every at-risk U.S. citizen has a right to know they are at risk.
Reporters informed about the hydrogen fluoride by an expert asked Husky officials about the risk of disaster at the initial press conference. Officials refused to answer. Superior Mayor Jim Paine repeated what he no doubt had been told by the company, that the evacuation zones were necessary because of the possibility of toxic materials in the smoke cloud that already was in the air.
That was the company blowing smoke in the face of an uninformed mayor and citizens. Husky officials had to know that with explosions ongoing, the company could be held liable for suggesting anything less, given the ongoing potential for the nearby hydrogen fluoride to be released.
In later press conferences, after reporters persisted in asking about the risk posed by the tank of hydrogen fluoride, the company and mayor acknowledged the event could have been “catastrophic.” They explained that a water-spray operation was implemented at the hydrogen fluoride tank and the tank was never compromised.
As if the main danger was in the tank overheating. The main danger was in the tank being ruptured by a large piece of flying metal. In a 2015 refinery explosion at ExxonMobil’s hydrogen fluoride-using refinery in Torrance, Calif., a U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation highlighted, with grave concern, that some large steel parts of the exploded facility landed within five feet of the nearby hydrogen fluoride tank.
The Husky refinery in Superior is one of the most dangerous of the 138 oil refineries in the United States because it is one of only 50 that uses hydrogen fluoride as an alkylation catalyst.
The mayors of Duluth and Superior are supported by citizens in demanding that Husky switch to a safer chemical process. Chevron’s Salt Lake City refinery implemented a liquid ionic catalyst.
The Twin Ports Action Alliance — a volunteer-led, nonprofit citizens coalition I co-founded after the fire and explosions in Superior — demands that Husky Energy pay for an independent consultant, chosen by workers and citizens, to complete a Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis on the continued use of hydrogen fluoride at the Superior refinery.
Ginger Juel of Duluth is co-founder of the Twin Ports Action Alliance (twinportsactionalliance.org), a volunteer-led nonprofit citizens coalition formed in response to the use of hydrogen fluoride at the Husky refinery in Superior. The group can be reached at email@example.com.