Nearly a year after the April 26 Husky Energy refinery explosion and fire in Superior, the city's residents are split on what to do about hydrogen fluoride, a potentially dangerous chemical used at the refinery, according to survey data released Monday by a local group opposed to the refinery's use of that chemical.
The survey, commissioned by the Twin Ports Action Alliance and conducted by Superior-based KW Call Center Services, found Superior residents were generally supportive of a hypothetical ban on hydrogen fluoride, but almost the same percentage of residents said they were "unsure" about a ban. More than a quarter of respondents opposed a ban on the chemical.
By phone, pollsters asked Superior residents, "Would you support a ban on hydrogen fluoride in Superior?" Of the 1,595 respondents, 37 percent would support a ban on hydrogen fluoride, 27.6 percent were opposed to a ban and 35.4 percent were unsure.
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, who said he was called by the pollsters and participated in the survey, called the survey "very unscientific" but added later that conversations about the refinery he has had with Superior residents generally mirror the survey results.
"I would say that my personal experience has been pretty similar to those numbers. The vast majority of people don't talk about it at all. The ones that do are pretty evenly split (on hydrogen fluoride) ... and then a very significant number will say, 'We need to get that refinery up and running as quickly as possible,'" Paine said.
Hydrogen fluoride, which is used in the oil refining process to create high-octane gasoline, at high levels, or in combination with skin contact, can cause death from an irregular heartbeat or from fluid buildup in the lungs.
While no hydrogen fluoride was released during the incident and the fire never reached the hydrogen fluoride, which was 150 feet away from the fluid catalytic cracking unit - the location of the explosion - shrapnel from the explosion was flung 200 feet, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said in an Aug. 2 factual update in Superior.
A News Tribune investigation found the chemical threatens a 25-mile radius surrounding the refinery under a worst-case release scenario. The April 26 evacuations were based on the risk of a hydrogen fluoride release.
Since the blast, the refinery has faced public opposition to its use of hydrogen fluoride, including Paine and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, but Husky has refused to commit to whether it will continue to use the chemical at the Superior refinery.
In a separate question, the pollsters asked, "Are elected officials doing enough to address the issue of hydrogen fluoride?" In response, 25 percent said no, 19.3 percent said yes, 38.6 percent were unsure and 17.2 percent "did not say."
Paine said he still wants the company to drop hydrogen fluoride and find an alternative, but he does not believe the city could legally ban the chemical.
"They've done about everything we've asked them, the only thing I'm still waiting on - and I am pushing them - is: Give us your plan to replace hydrogen fluoride," Paine said.
TPAA co-founder Ginger Juel said she was surprised by the number of people who were satisfied with their elected officials and the number of people who did not have an opinion on the chemical.
"We have a right to know what risks are in our community, and the fact that people don't really have a lot of opinions about the most dangerous chemical in our community kind of shocks me," Juel said.
Juel said she believes people who responded with "unsure" or "did not say" either don't think they can affect change or do not know enough about hydrogen fluoride to form an opinion. "Not enough people understand what is in the community or how it could impact them ... Why would we be concerned about something that has never been brought to our attention as an issue?" Juel said.
Husky spokesperson Mel Duvall responded to the survey in an emailed statement to the News Tribune Monday.
"We are aware of the survey and appreciate that it is a topic of concern," Duvall said. "We continue to evaluate all our options when it comes to rebuilding the refinery and look forward to discussing with the community when we are able."