On Monday, the Duluth City Council will take up a resolution formally requesting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take another look at safety concerns that have swirled around the continued use of hydrogen fluoride at refineries, such as the Husky Energy plant that exploded April 26, 2018. The ensuing blaze forced the evacuation of a large portion of Superior, as crews worked to get the fire under control and prevent any escape of the gaseous chemical, which can quickly penetrate and damage human tissues, causing blindness and even death. A follow-up investigation indicated that no hydrogen fluoride was released that day.
Yet both Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Superior Mayor Jim Paine called on Husky to discontinue its use of hydrogen fluoride in the wake of the incident.
Nevertheless, Husky Energy Inc. announced in April of this year its intentions to resume operations with hydrogen fluoride still in the mix when its Superior refinery is ready to come back on line.
In a News Tribune interview at the time, Husky Chief Operating Officer Rob Symonds said the company studied other options but decided not to pursue them 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.
Larson raised her objections anew in a letter to Kolin Schade, general manager of the Husky Refinery in Superior, referring to the previous year’s explosion as “a clear call to action … to ensure the safety of your workers, the health of the Twin Ports and the security and well-being of our entire region.”
Now, Larson is asking the Duluth City Council to weigh in calling on the federal government to further scrutinize the use of hydrogen fluoride at refineries.
She believes the time is right for the city’s elected representatives to raise their concerns, especially as the dangers of hydrogen fluoride have been thrust into the national public spotlight once again by a June 21 fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.
Even prior to the event in Philadelphia, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board earlier this year pointed to the 2018 Superior fire and another 2015 explosion at an ExxonMobil plant in Torrance, Calif., strongly encouraging the EPA to re-examine the use of hydrogen fluoride at refineries, a subject last reviewed by the agency in 1993.
Larson said: “There continue to be public safety and public health risks documented happening with this chemical, and it seems like we have a very specific opening right now with the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board weighing in so specifically in regards to this and with their very clear recommendation that the EPA start studying this.”
Duluth City Council President Noah Hobbs said he applauds Larson for bringing a resolution forward.
"With the knowledge we now have about what hydrogen fluoride is, I think the community shares a hesitation about using that chemical," he said, noting that a discharge could threaten residents of both cities, as well as public safety workers from throughout the area who are called in to respond.
"When you have the potential of a toxic cloud that could be catastrophic to life in the area, I think that's a real cause for concern." Hobbs said.
While Larson has shared her objections directly with Husky, she acknowledged: “I don’t have leverage to make them stop using something. What I do have is government authority, and a legislative body who can weigh in on the process of accountability, government to government, and with the backing of a very credible, important safety board.”
Husky Energy Chief Operating Officer Rob Symonds told the News Tribune earlier this year that the company is working to ensure the Superior refinery is a safer place when it restarts in 2020 or 2021. He pledged that new safety procedures won't just written down in a manual but actually will be strictly observed by workers.
"We're going through each of those procedures to ensure that they're as clear as they need to be and the operators who have to do them are comfortable," Symonds said.
Larson said she notified Mayor Paine that she would be asking Duluth city councilors to pass a resolution but did not know if he planned to follow suit by bringing forward a similar request.
For her part, however, Larson said: “It feels like the right utilization of a resolution. We’re talking about a very specific request that’s backed up by science and other public agencies that are committed to public safety. This helps elevate that and provides our federal delegation with the support they need to then make that government-to-government communication effective.”