A series of explosions and fires rocked the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior Thursday, sending a black plume of acrid smoke across the city, forcing massive evacuations and sending several people to local hospitals.
Essentia Health and St. Luke’s hospital officials said a combined 11 refinery victims were confirmed treated in Duluth and Superior facilities, one with a “serious blast injury.”
No fatalities were reported and all employees and hundreds of contractors working at the refinery were accounted for.
No details were available on the extent of refinery damage 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, spewing liquid asphalt onto the ground for hours.
A second, larger fire erupted just after noon with multiple explosions throughout the afternoon, sending a much bigger, black cloud billowing for miles.
Kollin Schade, refinery manager for Husky, told reporters that the facility was preparing for a May shutdown for servicing and inspection at the time of the explosion and that most of the fire and smoke was from asphalt burning.
Firefighters stood by for several hours until it was clear that a potentially dangerous toxic chemical, hydrogen fluoride, was not at risk of exploding then went “into offensive operations” with foam and water.
“The fire is out,” said Superior Fire Battalion Chief Scott Gordon, shortly before 7 p.m.
Officials said they hoped to keep the fire from re-igniting but that danger would persists for some time of a flare-up and that the evacuations ordered earlier would hold for the time being.
“Breathe easy. The fire is out. But stay tight” until further notice, Superior Mayor Jim Paine said. “Once we’re reasonably confident the smoke has died down, we’re going to let people go home.”
Around 7:30 Thursday evening, the smoke appeared to have returned.
Evacuation spread quickly
At a 3 p.m. press conference, Paine said everyone within a 3-mile radius of the refinery should evacuate and stay out. Alexander said those who leave should plan to be gone a few days.
City and county officials also said that everyone who lived or worked within 10 miles south of the fire also should evacuate due to the potentially toxic nature of the spreading smoke plume.
“If in doubt … just leave. Find a place to go,” Paine said, later adding that “potentially all” of the city’s 27,000 residents may have to evacuate.
But by 7 p.m. Paine said he hoped most residents could be allowed to return by sunset Thursday.
At 8 p.m. the city of Duluth issued a “shelter in place” advisory for the area of the Fond du Lac neighborhoods east to the CN ore docks in West Duluth, and to the top of the hill. “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,” a statement from the city read.
Essentia Health closed all of its Superior locations including evacuating everyone from its Superior hospital with all patients going to its Duluth facilities. The University of Wisconsin-Superior evacuated and sent students to the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
Many of Superior’s main roads were clogged to gridlock with traffic through the afternoon as residents tried to move away from the smoke plume or retrieve loved ones who were evacuating.
Residents who evacuated and needed shelter gathered at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center as the primary site.
Superior school officials said public school students in the city were evacuated to Amsoil headquarters in Superior where parents waited in traffic jams to pick up their children. Superior schools superintendent Janna Stevens said late Thursday afternoon that all students were either home safe with their families or were on their way home.
The Duluth Transit Authority sent buses to help move evacuees to safety.
UWS, all Superior public schools, Maple public schools and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College all are closed Friday.
Many businesses also closed and evacuated, including Superior Water, Light and Power and the Superior Family YMCA, gas stations and some grocery stores.
The Coast Guard also imposed a closed safety zone near the Superior Entry and Superior harbor due to the smoke dangers. It wasn’t’ clear when that would be relaxed.
Hydrogen fluoride a concern
The Superior refinery is one of about 50 nationally that use hydrogen fluoride to process high-octane gasoline. An acid catalyst, hydrogen fluoride is one of several federally regulated toxic chemicals at the refinery, such as propane and butane.
The refinery can handle about 78,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency records.
Schade, the refinery manager, would not answer specific questions on hydrogen fluoride Thursday, only saying its presence at the refinery was one reason the evacuation was underway.
A Superior Fire Department official Thursday said having the fire spread to the hydrogen fluoride tank would be the worst-case scenario for the situation to worsen, with other experts saying the fumes could spread a toxic cloud of gas for miles downwind.
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 for miles downwind,” Fred Millar, a Washington, D.C.-based independent consultant and activist on refinery toxicity issues,
told the News Tribune. “If your local officials aren’t explaining how concerned they are about that, then they should be. It would be a disaster. That’s what the evacuation (distances) should be based on.”
Contractors narrowly missed disaster
Eric Mathews, a boilermaker for Wales, Wis.-based CTS Inc. contractors working inside the refinery, said he was about 200 yards away on break when the blast occurred.
It was like “a big sonic boom and rattled your brain,” Mathews told the News Tribune. “I was running and then the debris started falling out of the air … I stopped under a pipe rack then waited for the debris to stop falling.”
Mathews said most or all of his fellow contractors were on break, in blast-proof shelters at the scene, when the first explosion occurred.
“The really lucky part is that it happened during our break so all of our people were in blast shacks,” Mathews said.
A second wave of employees and contractors were rapidly leaving the scene after 12:30 p.m. — some piled into the backs of pickup trucks — as a series of seven or eight more explosions occurred at 12:40 p.m. when fire trucks were seen moving away from the fire.
Earlier in the morning witnesses said they saw at least seven ambulances enter the facility, with helicopter ambulances also shuttling to and from the refinery and the Richard I. Bong Airport in Superior.
“Felt like a bomb”
Passersby and people near the refinery said they felt the first explosion rock buildings up to a mile away.
“It felt like a bomb,” said Katey Geistfeld, who works at the Challenge Center at the nearby Mariner Mall. “Everything kind of shook.”
“It shook the houses all over. They felt it at Belknap Plaza. … Tons of people were trying to get down there. They should be staying out,” said Mark Androsky, owner of Stadium Towing who was watching from just outside the refinery. Androsky was using his wrecker to block traffic at one point to allow emergency vehicles to enter.
News Tribune photographer Bob King, who flew over the site in an airplane on two different occasions, said one of the large, white storage tanks at the refinery was fractured and that a thick black liquid – the asphalt – was pouring out onto the ground.
King said the smoke plume “smelled like burning rubber” and that the intense heat from the fire tossed the small plane.
Mayor says city was prepared
The mayor said city agencies and refinery crews have trained jointly for disasters at the facility, calling Thursday’s event “the nightmare scenario’’ for which they train.
“This community is aware we have an oil refinery. We’re prepared for this. We’ve done extensive training,” Paine said. “We’ve 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 issues for Calgary-based Husky Energy, said he had no information on where inside the refinery the initial explosion occurred. The company was planning a five-week turnaround starting in May, meaning parts or all of the plant would be shut down.
Officials at Enbridge Energy, which own a massive oil pipeline terminal and storage facility with millions of gallons of petroleum products stored just across the street form the refinery fire, said their facility was not been impacted.
“The Husky Terminal is across the street from Enbridge’s Superior Terminal. This incident has not impacted Enbridge’s Superior Terminal operations. Most Enbridge terminal employees have been evacuated except for a small crew who continue to monitor the situation,’’ said Jennifer Smith, an Enbridge spokeswoman. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Husky employees and their families.”
Refinery had past violations
In 2015 the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined former refinery owner Calumet $21,000 over emergency response and flammable-liquids violations. Those violations were marked as settled and the problems solved by the end of that year.
It was the only OSHA enforcement action taken against the refinery in the past 20 years, according to a search of the agency’s database.
In 2012 and 2013 there were four reports of hydrogen sulfide releases due to power outages, according to the National Response Center.
The refinery has not been fined over hazardous waste since 1999, according to the Environmental Protection Agency
The refinery’s most recent Risk Management Plan was submitted in 2012 and states: “In the unlikely event of a catastrophic release, the refinery, working in conjunction with local emergency management staff, is well prepared to respond and mitigate adverse consequences to the community or the environment.”
Husky took over in 2017
Husky Energy concluded its purchase of the refinery in November, spending $492 million to acquire the refinery from Calumet. Husky said there were no changes planned for the facility but was planning to continue a $30 million upgrade started by Calumet.
About 180 people are employed at Wisconsin’s sole refinery, which provides the Northland with gasoline, asphalt and other specialty petroleum products. About 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, a marine terminal, 3.6 million barrels in storage and a marketing business.
The Superior refinery was built in 1950, acquired by Murphy Oil in 1958 and sold to Indianapolis-based Calumet for $475 million in 2011.
Husky Energy said the Superior refinery had averaged 37,000 barrels per day of production in the first three months of this year, according to an earnings statement released Thursday morning.
News Tribune reporters Brooks Johnson, Jimmy Lovrien, Jana Hollingsworth and Peter Passi and Superior Telegram reporter Maria Lockwood contributed to this story.
*Original article online at https://www.superiortelegram.com/news/accidents/4437226-update-superior-oil-refinery-rocked-explosions-fire