Superior Refinery Explosion: Oil and Water Don’t Mix
Posted on: May 9, 2018
A Huge cloud of smoke rises from the Superior, WI oil refinery owned by Canadian company Husky Energy. Image courtesy of

Refinery Explosion Update

An explosion at a Wisconsin refinery, owned by Husky Energy, on Thursday, April 26, lead to fairly extensive evacuations of the surrounding area due to a large smoke plume containing potentially harmful chemicals and particulate matter. The evacuation order was lifted around 6am on Friday.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency conducted monitoring at the site and found no evidence of elevated levels of toxins. Initiating at the fluidic catalytic cracking unit, shrapnel from the explosion punctured a tank containing asphalt, which spilled out and caught fire. A complete investigation by the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is ongoing.

It has now been revealed that the toxin of major concern was Hydrogen Fluoride (HF), a compound used in oil refineries to produce high-octane gasoline. When HF comes into contact with moisture it creates hydrofluoric acid, an extremely toxic substance that will corrode through human tissue. The tank containing HF was not damaged during the explosion and was equipped with a dedicated fire suppression system, but Superior Mayor, Jim Paine, and Duluth Mayor, Emily Larson, have requested that the refinery discontinue its use. Less dangerous alternatives are available and, according to the Associated Press, refinery manager Kollin Schade has said that they may remove HF from the plant’s operations along with other changes to the refinery configuration, as dictated by officials.

This isn’t the first time

On Tuesday April 28, 2015, pressure buildup in an empty 4,000 barrel asphalt storage tank, due to smouldering residual material, resulted in an explosion that burst a seam on the tank at the Superior refinery, then owned by Calumet Specialty Products. The residual asphalt material caught fire and created a plume of smoke that was visible from Duluth.

Husky Energy obtained the refinery only a year ago; before that, it was owned by Calumet Specialty Products who obtained the refinery on October 1st, 2010 from Murphy Oil USA. The refinery opened in 1950 and was operated by Murphy Oil USA from 1958 to 2010.

The 2015 explosion caused no danger to the public and the fire was put out in under two hours; however questions were raised in a letter to the editor in the Duluth News Tribune about the risks associated with oil refinery near Lake Superior.

Opposition to oil industry expansion in the Superior Basin, then and now

The letter to the editor is no longer available on the Duluth News Tribune site, however, it was quoted by the Council of Canadians in their article about the 2015 Superior Refinery explosion:

‘The incident was a call to discuss the role of oil companies in our community. …There is a lack of dialogue about the dangers of these facilities and their proximity to our homes and Lake Superior. Next time an explosion could start more than an empty tank on fire. . . . ‘ -Letter to the editor quoted by Council of Canadians

This time an explosion did start more than an empty tank fire, but the response was once again fairly quick and effective. Explosions and fire hazards are part of the danger of working with flammable materials like oil and oil products. Fortunately the people working in this plant were well trained to handle such events. Many people, however, are not satisfied with remediation, they want prevention and an overall reduction in reliance on fossil fuels.

The letter to the editor also stated opposition toward Enbridge pipelines as they present another potential source for oil contamination in the Superior watershed. The controversies around the expansive network of Enbridge pipelines in the Great Lakes region have not waned over recent years, especially with the proposed development of Enbridge Line 3—a pipeline that would double the capacity for exports of Canadian crude from Enbridge’s Edmonton terminal to their Superior Terminal, which supplies the Superior Wisconsin Refinery.

Recent Controversies over Enbridge Pipelines:

Associated Press: Enbridge underwater pipeline damaged in Michigan, possibly by ship anchor

Associated Press: Enbridge fined $1.8M by U.S. regulator for missing pipe inspection deadlines

Enbridge Line 3 replacement has passed approval on the Canadian side of the border, but has only been approved by Minnesota administrative law judgeAnn O’Reilly, if the course of the pipeline is not altered from the original Line 3, as Enbridge had initially proposed.

Star Tribune: Enbridge CEO says company will continue pursuing its preferred route for new pipeline

Oil reserves are being accessed through increasingly unconventional means and infrastructure is aging. Those both for and against pipelines are very vocal and pipeline routing extremely controversial. Meanwhile, a swelling tide of thought, research and action is focused on changing how we power our world.

Relevant InfoSuperior articles:

2018 Wisconsin Refinery Explosion

Crude News: New Additions to Research on Great Lakes Oil Transportation

Enbridge Line 3

Right Through Here

Enbridge Line 5

New Research Speculates on Pipeline Failure in Mackinac Straits

Aging Oil Pipeline Draws Growing Opposition

‘Ticking Time Bomb’: Motherboard Doc Explores Aging Oil Pipeline in the Great Lakes

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