A resolution adopted by the Duluth City Council Monday requests the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider whether petroleum refineries should be allowed to continue their use of hydrogen fluoride, a dangerous and potentially deadly chemical.
Mayor Emily Larson introduced the resolution in the wake of an April 26, 2018 explosion that rocked the Husky Energy refinery in Superior. Even though no hydrogen fluoride was released as a result of that incident, she noted that it stirred a lot of concern and unease about what could have happened if the chemical had escaped. Hydrogen fluoride can readily pass through the skin and cause irreparable bodily damage even with brief exposure.
Larson noted that while about 500 refineries in the U.S. once used hydrogen fluoride to process petroleum into high-octane fuel, the Husky plant in Superior is one of only about 50 that has continued to do so. Other facilities have switched to alternative technologies that do not require the introduction of this controversial chemical.
Larson cited a recommendation the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board made to the EPA in April, suggesting the agency re-evaluate the suitability of hydrogen fluoride for processing operations, given the advancement of newer technologies that pose less of a public safety risk. The board also pointed to recent near-miss incidents in Superior and at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, Calif. A subsequent explosion in June at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery — another facility using hydrogen fluoride — further underscored the danger. The EPA last reviewed refineries’ use of hydrogen fluoride in 1993.
“As a mayor and certainly as councilors and as people outside of these chambers, it is our job to manage risk,” Larson said.
During a public comment period, Dorie Reisenweber spoke in favor of the resolution, saying that despite safety features included in the design of the soon-to-be-rebuilt Superior refinery, Husky could not guarantee there would be no future incidents that could lead to the deadly release of hydrogen fluoride.
“People in the Twin Ports area are not expendable, “ Reisenweber said. “The risk of hydrogen fluoride is not acceptable, and I think you all know that.”
Ginger Juel, a local resident and a member to the Twin Ports Action Alliance who has lobbied against the continued use of hydrogen fluoride at Husky’s Superior refinery, said commercially viable alternatives to the chemical exist and have been proven to work.
She questioned Husky’s plans to continue to use the chemical in Superior, warning: “A worst-case scenario is the full tank vaporizing in 10 minutes to become a ground-hugging death cloud that could travel up to 22 miles, killing and injuring all in its path. That could include all of Duluth.”
Husky announced in April of this year that it intended to continue using hydrogen fluoride at its Superior refinery when it reopens in 2020 or 2021.
“Before coming to our decision, we undertook a rigorous evaluation of hydrogen fluoride options and alternatives, and that analysis concluded the alternatives were not commercially viable or introduced significant risks for the Superior refinery," said Mel Duvall, Husky’s senior communications manager for media and issues, in a statement last week.
At Large Councilor Arik Forsman said he supported Mayor Larson’s resolution, yet he offered an amendment noting the 200 jobs the refinery supports and $22.5 million its operation injects into the regional economy.
He added language that read: “The city of Duluth recognizes the importance of the refinery to the Twin Ports economy and hopes to see the facility reconstructed safely, utilizing the talents of local tradeswomen and tradesmen.”
Mayor Larson said she welcomed the amendment, which was incorporated into the final resolution.
The council adopted the amended resolution by an 8-0 vote, with 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle absent.
In other business, the council voted 8-0 to provide $1.8 million in tax-increment financing support for a project that could bring 84 units of housing to the Board of Trade Building with 20% of those apartments offered at reduced rates to households making 50% of the area median income or less.
The council also agreed by the same margin to abate $125,000 in local property taxes to assist in the development of Bluffs of Duluth, a 35-unit senior housing residence in the Coffee Creek development. There, too, 20% of the units would be reserved for low-income residents who qualify for housing vouchers.