Explosion-damaged Wisconsin refinery will keep using toxic chemical
Husky Energy said it will continue to use hydrogen fluoride at its Superior refinery.
In an announcement posted to its website Wednesday morning, April 3, the Calgary-based oil company said it would continue to use the potentially dangerous chemical in the refining process at its Superior refinery, but would add additional safety features.
The evacuations during the April 26, 2018, explosion and fire were based on hydrogen fluoride release concerns, but no hydrogen fluoride was released during the incident.
Hydrogen fluoride, which is used in the process to create high-octane gasoline, can cause death from an irregular heartbeat or from fluid buildup in the lungs when inhaled at high levels or in combination with skin contact.
In the year since the explosion and fire, Twin Ports residents and local and federal officials have voiced concerns over the refinery’s use of hydrogen fluoride and have urged Husky to use alternative chemicals, like sulfuric acid.
In an interview Wednesday morning, Husky Chief Operating Officer Rob Symonds said the company studied converting from hydrogen fluoride to sulfuric acid but said that it would not pursue it because it would require swapping out undamaged equipment with new equipment and near-daily truckloads of sulfuric acid as opposed to a yearly shipment of hydrogen fluoride. Symonds said Husky also looked at IsoAlky as an alternative but said it has not yet been used commercially.
Asked if a conversion away from hydrogen fluoride was ruled out due to its high cost, Symonds said: “Cost is one (factor), but we never actually got to detailed cost analysis.”
He added later: “There are a lot of reasons before you get to cost.”
While no hydrogen fluoride was released during the incident and the fire never reached the hydrogen fluoride, which was 150 feet away from the location of the explosion — shrapnel from the explosion was flung 200 feet, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said in an Aug. 2 factual update in Superior.
A Duluth News Tribune investigation found the chemical threatens a 25-mile radius surrounding the refinery under a worst-case release scenario. The April 26 evacuations were based on the risk of a hydrogen fluoride release.
By phone Wednesday afternoon, Superior Mayor Jim Paine said he was “disappointed” in Husky’s decision.
“It’s disappointing, I was hoping they would meaningfully pursue a safer alternative,” Paine said.
In the days following the Husky explosion and fire, both Paine and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson called on Husky to stop using hydrogen fluoride.
“Their argument that it’s not reasonable to use the safer alternative — I haven’t been able to verify that,” Paine said. “So I’m disappointed but I still have a lot to learn.”
In an emailed statement, Larson noted the 25-mile radius threatened in a worst-case release of hydrogen fluoride includes Duluth. Despite being “incredibly disappointed” in Husky’s decision, Larson said she welcomes Husky’s investment in the Twin Ports and the employment it provides, but said that hydrogen fluoride puts the refinery workers most at risk.
“I recognize that alternatives to hydrogen fluoride may be more complicated, and more expensive, but those reasons pale in comparison to the potential devastation this choice can cause,” Larson said in an emailed statement. “The explosion at the Husky oil refinery was a clear call to action for Husky to make a change that impacts people’s safety, and I am frustrated, angry, and disappointed in their decision.”
Husky vowed to improve safety around the hydrogen fluoride tank by adding a separate tank where the chemical could be dumped in a leak, a laser detection system and additional layers of water curtains.
Ginger Juel, co-founder of the Twin Ports Action Alliance, a group opposed to the refinery’s use of hydrogen fluoride, said in a statement Wednesday morning that Husky’s planned safety improvements were a “misleading promise.”
"A mitigation system can be impaired by flying shrapnel from explosions. We can thank all local and state elected officials for downplaying the risks of HF and not taking a stance despite repeated requests from constituents," Juel said.
Until Wednesday, Husky refused to commit to whether it will continue to use the chemical at the Superior refinery.
Demolition begins, partial restart planned for 2020
With winter now over, demolition crews have arrived at the refinery and started tearing down equipment damaged in the explosion and fire.
Husky has filed for permits with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the rebuild and expects those to be approved by October. Then construction can begin.
Symonds said the company expects a partial production startup in 2020 and a full restart by 2021.
“Certainly a little later than I might have liked if we were talking about this a year ago, but it’s the right thing for us to do,” Symonds said.