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OSHA: Husky fire could have been prevented

Large plumes of black smoke continue to rise during a series of fires and explosions at the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior, Wis. Thursday. --- Clint Austin /

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the Husky Energy refinery explosion and fire on April 26 that rocked the Duluth-Superior area could have been prevented if the company had maintained its equipment and established safety procedures.

OSHA delivered eight "serious" citations and $83,000 of fines Tuesday, Oct. 2, to Superior Refining Company LLC, which owns and operates the Superior refinery but does business as Husky Energy.

In a news release, OSHA said the citations were issued "for failing to control the use and release of highly hazardous chemicals after an explosion and fire injured several employees" and that the explosion and fire could have been avoided.

"Ensuring the mechanical integrity of critical equipment used during the refinery shutdown operation could have prevented this incident," said OSHA Eau Claire Area Office Director Mark Hysell in the release, adding that the company was cooperating fully with investigators.

The company has 15 days to contest the citations and fines.

OSHA's citations detail the company's lack of safety procedures for the fluid catalytic cracking unit, or FCC, where the explosion occurred.

In August, another federal agency, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, found a worn-out spent catalyst slide valve may allow air to mix with hydrocarbons within the FCC, then come in contact with iron sulfide deposits, which can spontaneously ignite if in contact with air.

OSHA's citations suggest the company's Process Hazard Analysis, which is supposed to explain risks involved in an industrial process, and operating procedures failed to address what ultimately caused the initial explosion and were not easily accessible to many employees

"The employer did not include the hazard of air introduction from the Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit (FCCU) regenerator into the reactor due to loss of catalyst and or loss of seal on the spent catalyst slide valve," OSHA wrote in a citation.

Meanwhile, OSHA said the company failed to fix "deficiencies in equipment that were outside acceptable limits before further use," including the FCC's spent catalyst slide valve, which the Board said first allowed air into the FCC.

Another citation said FCC emergency shutdown procedures were not clear, leaving employees unsure of what conditions would warrant a shutdown and who is responsible for the shutdown.

OSHA's investigation differs from the Board's investigation.

"OSHA ensures safety working conditions and is concerned with the employer/employee relationship. CSB investigates the cause of the incident," an OSHA spokesperson said in an email Tuesday.

In an email Tuesday, Husky spokesperson Mel Duvall said, "We look forward to meeting with OSHA to discuss their recommendations and investigation findings."

Duvall did not answer whether Husky would appeal the citations, if the company disagreed with the findings or if the company would change anything at the Superior refinery following OSHA's citations.

"It is our policy to continuously improve our process safety programs. Superior Refining remains committed to this facility, our employees and the community," Duvall said.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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