Up in Smoke: Superior disaster reminds why we watch industry

PHOTO: Screenshot from Radiant Spirit Gallery YouTube video.

Just six days ago the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin could have been blown to smithereens. A billowing fire engulfed the Husky Oil Refinery in Superior, encroaching just 150 feet from a tank of hydrogen fluoride. An explosion of that tank would have atomized Superior and released a deadly toxic cloud for miles around, according to a nonprofit group analysis. Thousands would have died.

Now, that didn’t happen. Additional safety systems were in place. But this was the uncomfortable reality underlying the decision to evacuate Superior last Thursday.

Furthermore, plenty of bad things did happen. We just don’t know and might never know how bad. The dark black cloud of smoke rising off the exploding burning asphalt was toxic. This wasn’t as dire as “blowing up Superior,” but that seems a low bar to clear.

The situation contained, now we deconstruct what happened last week. In the moment, the company, city and state leaders worked well together. Lucky timing with a planned shutdown prevented more injuries, and no one died. The evacuation of Superior was reasonably calm, which justifies the reason for keeping the hydrogen fluoride on the down-low at first.

But there are serious problems here.

First, while Superior fire personnel had trained for refinery fires, they just didn’t have the resources for something this big and dangerous. Indeed, the unremitting heat of the burning asphalt (compared to volcanic lava) prevented aggressive fire suppression anyway. They kept the most dangerous materials cool, diverting the fire at first.

KBJR meteorologist Adam Clark took to social media a few days after the disaster to share his frustrations about the lack of information during the event.

Specifically, he called out the lack of information on what was being put into the air during and after the disaster. He pointed out how oil refineries in California are required to keep real-time air emissions data so that the general public has constant knowledge of what’s going on.

“It sounds like the technology is there to better monitor our industry, but we are not utilizing it,” wrote Clark, who then cited this California report and this Science Direct article.

Monitoring is one problem. But most people who live in the Twin Ports never realized the danger inherent in the materials stored there.

I’ve driven past that refinery hundreds of times. It was Murphy Oil, then Calumet. Now it’s owned by Husky. I never knew until this, however, that industry watchers considered this refinery one of the most dangerous in the United States.

Danielle Kaeding of Wisconsin Public Radio reports on the dangerous chemicals and the initial findings of what happened.

Herein lies another uncomfortable truth. Nobody wanted the oil refinery to go up like a roman candle, least of all the company that owns it. Nobody wants a ecological disaster or an existential threat to thousands of residents of two industrial cities. So, without casting stones, we see that *not wanting* an unmitigated disaster isn’t what prevents one from happening.

That’s where transparency and regulation come in.

We’ve lived through a period where many in our region have come to decry regulation as red tape and obstruction to economic stability. This has happened before. But consider the Dupont powder factory that blew up twice in the early 20th Century, vaporizing the bodies of dead workers. Or Reserve Mining’s insidious dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior just 40 years ago. Our history is full of examples of why we must regulate.

Already, Superior Mayor Jim Paine and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson both called for the Husky refinery to use a different, less dangerous chemical to refine oil. That’s appropriate. When citizens fully realize the risks of this situation, they will settle for nothing less.

Good intentions aren’t enough and often they aren’t even good, if we’re being honest about it.


  1. Gerald S says

    This gets potentially even worse when dealing with overseas companies with frankly sociopathic records of trying to get away with as much as they can get local officials and governments to allow, or of ignoring attempts at regulation if the officials and governments do not have significant power to control them and willingness to use that power. This is made even worse by the fact that the companies’ ability to continue mining is usually unaffected by major catastrophes or long term failures, unlike the refinery companies that lose the ability to run their business following failures like last week. It is to their financial benefit to minimize costs of doing business by cutting any corners that are allowed.

    Glencore and Antofagasta both have records of trying to take maximum advantage of local people, workers, and governments. If we are going to do non-ferrous mining, and it seems inevitable that eventually we will, we need strict regulations with teeth, strict independent monitoring, and very large indemnity funds guaranteed by fiscally sound third party bonding or insurance companies. Otherwise we are just playing the hicks that the big boys can take advantage of in our desire to get the presumed benefits.

    We owe this to ourselves, to the businesses that will share the region with the mines, to the workers at the mines, to our environment that is so valuable to our region, to the taxpayers of the state and the country, and to our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren.

    The most interesting thing about this is that the supporters of non-ferrous mining know very well that all this is true, since they regularly make the point that we have the potential to regulate the industry in ways that prevent abuses that have occurred overseas as an argument for allowing the projects. Meanwhile, the companies have refused to address any of this prior to finalization of contracts and permits, and have aggressively resisted any efforts to try to make them address it.

  2. Joe musich says

    Speaking to the title obviously not closely enough. A get ready for even more egregious “blindness” coming to Minnesota. I find it intersting the mayors of both twin ports cities are calling for using another additive in their products which apparently happens in most other refineries. Could it be it still happens there because of an industry friendly approach of the political atmosphere. Then I hear the Chisholm goes with the GOP on the h2o treatment plant issue I know my fears are warranted. I was up there for an educational workshop years 2003 ago listening to to the same guy present the wonders of polymet. But has now it was the jobs the scam would bring. However it was nor is that never was that. It is too bad the Dems bathed in that brew. Now they do not know how to change the recipe and get out of it.

  3. Some great misstatements in this. I’d expect nothing less from MN, land of the loons. The concerns are over creating a very deadly cloud not an explosion that would level (atomize) Superior. Not sure what idiot came up with that comment.

    I’ll agree Husky should take this opportunity to change to another system. We live in a dangerous world, even lettuce can kill you.

    • independant says

      Well said. There is always a need for continual improvements and sensible regulations in all industries but hyperbole and emotions cloud the facts we need to make decisions and unfortunately often times have an ulterior motive. Does anyone wonder who would stand to benefit financially by stopping new pipeline projects, new mining projects, etc. Maybe companies and the folks behind them manipulate peoples environmental based emotions and also financially support protest groups to fight new projects. Folks who believe they are altruistic environmental warriors are actually working as unknowing minions to help ensure the current hold on the supply or transport of resources by existing entities are not threatened by new players. Even when these new players may actually provide the resource extraction or transportation in a cleaner and safer manner that what is done currently?

      • Gerald S says

        The key here is not to stop the project, which I believe will go on almost for certain, but to count our fingers after shaking hands with Glencore and others. Experience elsewhere, including in Canada, has been that the companies will take any advantage they can get, pass costs of failures to the taxpayers, leave behind various disasters, and so on. We can be suckers if we want, if we are wowed by the promises of jobs and economic stimulus so much that we give the companies a blank check. Or we can be watchful in defending our interests, particularly financial interests in making sure that the costs of any problems are born by the companies and that there is good monitoring to make sure that they do not repeat the disasters that have occurred so many places, most of whom believed that they were protected until they found out to their massive regret that they were not.

        In the end, this is the way modern capitalism is supposed to work: the companies are dedicated to their own good and that of their investors and managers, while the people, through their agents in government, push back steadily to protect their own interests. It is all well and good to listen to their promises of new and better , as so many others have done before, and as we did ourselves in the first Polymet proposal, which Polymet itself admits was inadequate. But we need to borrow the old standard: trust everyone, but always cut the cards.

        • independant says

          Gerald I am glad there aren’t any groups that want to stop these projects. I have been woke to the fact that what I thought were anti mining and pipeline groups, actually want to contribute solutions and ideas to make these projects the best they can be for our local communities and are looking forward to the first day of successful production/operation.

          • Gerald S says

            No doubt there are going to be people who will try to lay down in front of the bulldozers. However, speaking realistically, the momentum among the regulatory agencies is definitely in favor of the mines, and IMO the courts will eventually decide in favor of the mines as well, although I will readily admit that I do not have any real understanding of the Fond du Lac treaty issues.

            The extremes on both sides are marked by suppositions that are not sustained by the evidence, with the pro-mining people tending to believe that there has been some new magical breakthrough that will overcome the past experience of disaster after disaster with little or no attention by the regulatory agencies and the state, and the anti-mining people believing that no matter how carefully regulated, the mining will clearly lead to disaster.

            I consider my position, a position shared by many people who are more practically oriented on both sides, to be a reasonable midpoint to meet. To wit, the mines will proceed, as seems inevitable, but will require extremely attentive regulation by state and federal agencies to make sure that failures like Mount Polley do not occur here, and very high levels of third party financial guarantees to indemnify the taxpayers of Minnesota and of the United States against the costs of failure, either now or in five centuries in the future. If the process is indeed safe, the costs and risks to the mining companies will be small. If the process fails, the money will be there to repair damage.

  4. John Ramos says

    Thinking about the possibility of a toxic gas cloud that could kill thousands is not “hyperbole and emotions.” We were one explosion away from that happening. We could be bulldozing up the bodies today.

  5. Ranger47 says

    Time to ban carpet and linoleum stores. Cloquet was almost vaporized.

    “A huge plume of black smoke rose north of Cloquet after a large fire broke out at the Cloquet Interiors store at 227 Minnesota Highway 33 just before 4 p.m. Thursday”.

  6. John Ramos says

    The blitheness of some people blows me away. If that HF tank had gone up, I’d have one child and a wife dead right now.

    • Ranger47 says

      The good news is John, they didn’t die. And I’m prayerfully thankful things weren’t worse. The Bong bridge is what, a few years younger than what the I-35 bridge was. If it collapses, which we know it could, many will unfortunately die…but I’m still going to use it. No guarantees in life. Since Cain and Abel, the world remains a dangerous place.

  7. John Ramos says

    You can always count on Ranger to bring the good news. Maybe we should move the HF tank a little closer to Great Lakes Elementary. I mean, half a mile is so far.

  8. Not surprised Ranger doesn’t understand sarcasm or at least, pretends not to.

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