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Water worries follow Husky fire

John Lundy

Forum News Service

Nervousness about the quality of Superior's water following the April 26 Husky Energy refinery fire bubbled to the surface during a community meeting on Monday.

The meeting, hosted by University of Wisconsin-Extension and The Lake Superior Reserve, took place at Superior Middle School, which is less than 4 miles from the refinery and was itself evacuated on the afternoon of the fire.

Field investigator Connie Antonuk of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had just reported that to date there had been no impact on the city's drinking water, when a man in the audience of about 60 people interrupted loudly.

"What are you testing for?" asked the man, who later would identify himself only is Cyrus. "There's no known impact," he added, emphasizing the word "known."

Additional testing was underway, Antonuk responded.

"While we keep drinking the water," Cyrus objected.

Cyrus continued to debate Antonuk, eventually rising to his feet and addressing the audience and then walking out, 20 minutes into a scheduled two-hour meeting. From the other side of the audience, Ginger Juel of Duluth applauded Cyrus.

Juel said later that she grew up on 10th Street in Superior, in close proximity to the refinery, and she still has many family members in Superior. She came to the meeting out of concern for the water they're drinking, Juel said.

"They were given a lot of conflicting information throughout the day (of the fire), so I'm here for their best interest," she said.

Juel said she had called Superior Mayor Jim Paine to question his assertion that the water was safe. She had contacted the DNR on May 3 and was informed the agency had recommended that Superior Water Light and Power run further tests, but that it would take two to three weeks to complete those tests.

"So the conflicting information that bothers me is that people are saying that this is safe, but they do not have any data," Juel said.

Paine, who attended the meeting, later said he was confident about the safety of Superior's drinking water, post-Husky fire. Although he was drinking from a Dasani bottle, Paine said it was filled with Superior tap water.

"I said the water was safe," Paine confirmed. "Now that sounds like a definitive statement. But I've always tried to qualify it with: based on the evidence we have."

Nonetheless, he said, available information provides reason for his confidence. Superior's drinking water is drawn from far out and deep in Lake Superior, Paine said. Smoke from the fire blew in the opposite direction of that source.

"That's the DNR's position," he said. "There's really no way for the pollution from the fire to have reached the source of the drinking water. ... I'm comfortable with that very reasonable assumption. That's why I drink the water."

After brief statements from public officials and environmental and health agency representatives, the meeting split into small group discussions. James Anderson, who moderated the event for UW-Extension, said summaries of what was said will be posted online later this week.

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