Several injured in refinery explosion in Wisconsin
Several people have been injured in an explosion at an oil refinery in the city of Superior in Wisconsin, USA. At least six people have been taken to hospital, but there are reports that as many as 20 may have been injured, according to a statement from the rescue service, the Duluth News Tribune reports.
Stock Photo: Picture shows the Coalmont, Colorado Oil Refinery. Photo: Wikipedia
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.
There are no reports of the severity of the injuries or any deaths.
Black smoke has been seen rising from the plant and other workers have been evacuated. According to CBS Minnesota, the fire is under control.
The explosion occurred at ten o'clock in the morning local time during the process of closing down the refinery for repairs, which is one of the most dangerous moments, according to workers at the facility that ABC Eyewitness News talked to.
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 explosive 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 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.
Another contractor walking out of the scene said he thought he was “going to die.”
A second wave of employees and contractors were rapidly leaving the scene after 12:30 p.m. 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.