Refinery Fire Aftermath: Health, Safety Questioned

Monday, April 30, 2018 @ 07:04 PM gHale

Damaged storage tanks at the Husky Energy oil refinery.
Duluth News photo

At the height of the Husky Energy oil refinery fire in Superior, WI, this past Thursday when dark, acrid smoke billowed into the sky for miles, every one kept repeating the air was safe.

But multiple experts said the black plume of smoke from the refinery fire was almost certainly full of toxic fumes and carcinogens.

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In fact, it’s the smoke plume, and potentially toxic gas plumes, that spur pre-planned evacuations for miles downwind of refineries when a major fire breaks out, said Neil Carman, a former refinery inspector for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and now with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club in a published report in the Forum News Service. That is exactly what happened when the fire broke out, officials ordered an evacuation.

Kollin Schade, manager of the refinery, said it was asphalt pouring out of a punctured tank that was causing most of the fire and smoke Thursday. Asphalt is one of the major petroleum products produced at the Superior refinery.

When burned, asphalt not only emits toxic gases and particulate matter, but the smoke can contain small particles that can linger after the smoke dissipates, Carman said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said burning asphalt gases include volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which can cause symptoms ranging from dizziness, breathing problems and nausea to liver damage and cancer, depending on the level and length of exposure.

“Everything in there (the smoke) is toxic chemicals. The unburned chemicals in the smoke are full of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons … they have benzene in them,’’ Carman said in the report. “They are very nasty chemicals. They are human carcinogens.”

The tiny particles can lodge deep in the lungs when inhaled. From there, they can pass directly into a person’s bloodstream, Carman said.

How long the toxic danger lasts during and after any fire depends on wind direction, distance from the refinery, weather and other factors, experts said.

David Morrison of the EPA said the agency and Husky Energy employees were monitoring air quality during the fire using equipment on crews at the refinery, most of whom were not in the smoke plume. They also tested air quality at several locations taken in and near Superior — after the fire was out — and found no unsafe levels of particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide or volatile organic compounds, leading city officials to cancel the evacuation notice.

“There were very low, trace levels, well below any health standards, of volatile chemicals and dust and particulates,” Morrison said in the report.

In addition to the toxic smoke from asphalt burning, officials were extremely concerned Thursday the fire would spread to a tank of hydrogen fluoride, a federally regulated toxic chemical that some public safety groups say is inherently dangerous.

The Superior refinery is one of about 50 nationally that still uses 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 federal EPA records from 2012.

Schade, the refinery manager, would not answer specific questions on hydrogen fluoride Thursday, only saying its presence at the refinery was one reason evacuation precautions were underway. The fire never reached the hydrogen fluoride, and on Friday Schade said the hydrogen fluoride tank was “not compromised whatsoever” by the explosions or fire.

A Superior Fire Department official on Thursday said having the fire spread to the hydrogen fluoride tank would be the worst-case scenario, with other experts saying the fumes could spread a toxic cloud of gas for miles downwind.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydrogen fluoride is a highly dangerous gas, forming corrosive and penetrating hydrofluoric acid upon contact with moisture. On any exposed skin, it immediately converts to hydrofluoric acid, which is corrosive and toxic and requires immediate medical attention upon exposure, the CDC said. Breathing in hydrogen fluoride at high levels, or in combination with skin contact, can cause death from an irregular heartbeat or from fluid buildup in the lungs. The gas can also cause blindness by rapid destruction of the corneas.

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