SUPERIOR, Wis. - Superior's evacuation order has been lifted, but the mop-up continues on the scene of Thursday's massive fire at the Husky Energy oil refinery.
The Superior Fire Department cleared the scene at 8:15 a.m. Friday, April 27, as Duluth firefighters stepped in to provide some relief, Fire Chief Steve Panger said.
"The area is still very hot. There's a lot of heat in the products. So we will be there for quite some time yet," he said. Panger compared the asphalt mix to lava and explained that the danger of another flare-up will persist for at least another 24 hours.
In all, 21 people sought hospital care as a result of the fire, and all but one has been released. No fatalities were reported, and the remaining patient was listed in "good condition."
"Our concern at this point, as well as everyone else's, is to continue to monitor," Panger said, noting the DNR remained on the scene sampling water.
'Back to normal'
After a traumatic Thursday that began shortly after 10 a.m. with an explosion at the refinery, followed by what appeared to be an initially successful response and then a massive flare-up that forced an evacuation, Superior Mayor Jim Paine said folks are eager to return to everyday life.
"Back to normal - that is our mission for the next couple of days, is to bring the people of Superior back to normal," he said.
Paine said he lifted the evacuation order at 6 a.m., only after receiving the all-clear from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that conditions were safe for people to return.
David Morrison, an on-the-scene coordinator for the EPA, said people have been monitoring air conditions in the area around the refinery since the fire began. He said that the initial focus was placed on ensuring the welfare of people working within what he called "the hot zone."
As the fire came under control Thursday night, he said the focus shifted to a more wide-spread assessment of air quality conditions throughout the community.
"We spent the night gathering air-quality data, so that this morning, before the evacuation order was to be lifted, we had data to support that decision," Morrison said. "We found consistent low trace levels well below health risk standards virtually everywhere we went for volatile chemicals, particulates and dust, the kinds of things that can adhere to smoke."
"We don't want to miss something. When you have asphalts, you've got very heavy-end PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) compounds, and they tend to stick to air particles and to soot," Morrison said of ongoing tests to detect any contamination problems.
Reflecting on the incident, Paine said: "I think it's important to note that while yesterday was a very scary day, it had the potential to be absolutely catastrophic. And the difference between those two days is the hard work, skill and professionalism of hundreds and hundreds of people, including the citizens of Superior and Duluth - so really tens of thousands of people. But the team that really managed this crisis had prepared for this for a long time, and when the crisis came, they kept a cool head; they acted with sound judgment and, in many cases, downright courage."
Paine pointed to the mortality-free event as a testament to the good work of refinery staff and responders.
"In one of the largest disasters this community has ever seen, everybody is going home," he said.
The order to evacuate Thursday afternoon came as the fire became too hot to fight, causing crews to fall back and regroup. Concerns that hydrogen fluoride, a toxic chemical used in the refining process, could escape the facility prompted officials to exercise extreme caution and to call for a mandatory evacuation of everyone within 3 miles of the fire or up to 10 miles downwind.
Refinery manager Kollin Schade said Friday that a tank containing hydrogen fluoride appears to have come through the fire unscathed.
"Right now we have confirmation that that unit was not compromised whatsoever," he said.
At a Friday morning press conference, Paine was asked if authorities had a duty to inform the public about the potential danger of a poisonous hydrogen fluoride discharge.
"Once we understood the full response plan, yes, I think it was our responsibility," he said, adding that he and his team intended to publicly lay out the potentially dangerous situation at a 7 p.m. press conference Thursday.
"That's when we were going to release all the information about our full plan to deal with the hydrogen fluoride, which we were formulating all day and preparing for all day," Paine said. "That was the nature of the evacuation, ultimately. However, the biggest danger in any evacuation is the public themselves and the process of evacuation - the accidents and emergencies that can take place. If you were here, you saw the gridlock throughout the city of Superior. We needed that process to happen as smoothly as possible, while we prepared for any eventuality."
"So while we were trying to be transparent, we were trying to truly protect the public as well. And the reason we didn't release it at 7 p.m. was that at 6:42, they put the fire out, and that was the news. So yes, it was important to be transparent about the risk to the public and what we were dealing with, but public safety comes first," he said.
Schade said the refinery's first priority is to secure the facility, and then assess it to understand "what we have to work with."
"We expect all the federal organizations - OSHA, the EPA, the Chemical Safety Board - we would expect all those agencies to arrive, and we want to work with them so we can understand exactly what caused this incident and make improvements going forward," he said.
Morrison said potential water pollution remains a concern.
"We're trying to recover the firefighting foam and any residual chemicals that are in the firefighting water," he said, adding that the U.S. Coast Guard and contractors are using booms to prevent any petroleum or other contaminants from flowing out of Newton Creek and into the Hog Island inlet.