Superior Mayor Jim Paine said he supports Duluth Mayor Emily Larson’s call for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to scrutinize the continued use of hydrogen fluoride by refineries, such as the Husky facility in Superior. But unlike his counterpart, he probably won’t be introducing any City Council resolution on the issue any time soon.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if something like that would pass this council,” he said, noting that Superior councilor opinions on the matter seem to be split.
“It starts to divide the community, too, where people think that being opposed to the use of hydrogen fluoride in the alkylation process can be seen as being opposed to the operation of the refinery. So, it can be challenging for elected officials in the community where the refinery exists to take a stand that might be seen to be anti-refinery, anti-business or even anti-labor,” he said.
But Paine said that would be a mischaracterization.
“We support the refinery over here. We support the operation. We support the people who are working there. But our first priority, above all others, is the safety of the workers that are operating the refinery and the people who live around it,” he said.
Rather than risk sending a mixed message with a resolution from a divided City Council, Paine said he most likely will write a letter from the mayor’s office to the EPA asking for much the same thing as the resolution that’s heading to the Duluth City Council for its consideration Monday night.
“The EPA should be taking a harder look at this chemical,” Paine said. “If this is a danger to the community, we need experts to say so and government agencies to intervene.”
An April 2018 explosion at the Husky refinery in Superior led to the evacuation of a large portion of the city, prompted by concern that a tank containing hydrogen fluoride could be compromised, but none of the corrosive and deadly gas was released.
Husky is working to bring its Superior refinery back online and the company expects to resume production there by 2020 or 2021. In April of this year, it announced the updated Superior facility will continue to use hydrogen fluoride, despite local objections.
“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.
He noted that no hydrogen fluoride escaped during the fire, as safeguard systems worked as designed.
However, Duvall acknowledged that it’s normal for people to feel rattled by the incident, even a year later.
“We understand there continue to be concerns, and that is one of the reasons why we held an open house in April, so community members could directly ask questions of our staff and industry experts,” he said.
Yet the Husky refinery in Superior is one of only about 50 refineries nationwide that still process petroleum with hydrogen fluoride to produce gas.
If and when the EPA digs into the science, Paine said he believes the agency will conclude that refineries still using hydrogen fluoride are outdated.
“I would hope that they then use their regulatory influence or that they begin to push Congress to use its lawmaking power to push this entire industry into a more modern and safer direction. We have new technology. It is no longer 1960. It’s time to build refineries the way they should be built in 2019 and 2020,” Paine said.
Duvall contends the Superior refinery is being rebuilt with a keen eye toward improved safety.
“As part of our rebuild plans, we are incorporating additional safety enhancements. The refinery has safely used hydrogen fluoride for almost 60 years and we believe the additional features will further enhance safety for the refinery and our neighbors,” he said.
But Paine noted that Husky has resisted calls for it to shift away from using hydrogen fluoride.
“I think they made a financial decision when it came to keeping hydrogen fluoride,” he said.
Despite Husky’s refusal to quit using the chemical, Paine expressed appreciation for many of the other improvements Husky is making at its Superior refinery.
“I don’t lose a lot of sleep about hydrogen fluoride in the city of Superior. I believe that refinery is as safe as it can be with hydrogen fluoride. I just also believe it would be a safer refinery if it replaced that process,” he said.
Even if Husky is forced to wean the refinery off of hydrogen fluoride, Paine said he remains confident the company will continue to operate in Superior and won’t walk away from the plant.
“It’s too valuable of an asset,” he said. “You don’t walk away from a gold mine just because the gold gets a little deeper.”
Meanwhile, Duvall noted that Husky continues to invest in Superior.
“We remain committed to the future of the refinery, our employees and the community and want to ensure it will continue to contribute to the economy of the region for decades to come,” he said.