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Superior Marks One Year Since Husky Refinery Fires

Emergency Officials Recall Response That Day

Husky Refinery fire
A plume of dark smoke rises from the refinery fire in April 2018. Bob King/Duluth News Tribune

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of an explosion and fires at Superior’s Husky Energy oil refinery. The incident injured three dozen refinery workers and caused the evacuation of city residents last spring.

Keith Kesler, director of Douglas County Emergency Management, said on WPR’s “The Morning Show” on Friday that he was on his way back from a meeting when he could hear the radio traffic about the explosion. He called Randy Books, his regional director for Wisconsin Emergency Management, and told him that Superior was experiencing the “real deal.”

The explosion led to a series of fires that prompted officials to evacuate city residents. They wanted to protect community members from the potential release of the highly toxic chemical hydrogen fluoride.

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Kesler said social media caused confusion over the evacuation zone, which encompassed a 1-mile radius around the refinery, 10 miles south and 3 miles east and west of the facility.

“Nothing was done intentionally to mislead or put people, direct people, in the wrong area. I think everyone had the best intent,” he said. “And, at the end of the day, essentially other than the people who were at the refinery we didn’t have any significant injuries or issues.”

Superior Fire Chief Steve Panger was at city hall one year ago when he got the call about the explosion. Panger said the incident highlighted the training and preparation the Superior Fire Department has done with Husky and other oil-related industries in Superior.

“The refinery, their (emergency response team) trains every month, and we train three to four times with them on their facility whether it’s fire or hazmat or confined space or rescue training,” said Panger.

He said they also send four firefighters down to Texas every year to receive special training on fighting refinery or tank fires with petroleum-based products.

The Chemical Safety Board found last August that a worn slide valve caused the explosion. The agency hasn’t finished its investigation, but the board called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review a 1993 study on hydrofluoric acid to evaluate risks to surrounding communities.

A Husky spokeswoman said in a statement this week that they realize the incident that day had a significant impact on the community.

“We have spent the year seeking to rebuild trust with our neighbors and looking at ways to further improve the safety and operations of the refinery,” said Kim Guttormson in an email.

Husky officials said they are looking for feedback from the community on its $400 million plans to rebuild and provide additional safety measures, including options for safety improvements outside the refinery’s fence line.

“We remain committed to the community of Superior and look forward to ongoing conversations with our neighbors,” said Guttormson.

The company said it was marking the day with a lunch for employees and supporting them in any way they need.

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