More than 100 people turned out Wednesday night at Zion Lutheran Church to hear from scientists and a water protector from the Fond du Lac tribe about the potential lasting effects of a fire April 26 at Husky Energy in Superior.
Steven Sternberg, a chemical engineer with the University of Minnesota Duluth; Lorena Rios Mendoza, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Superior; and Debra Topping, a water protector with the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa, were on hand to share their perspectives and answer questions during a meeting organized by an ad hoc group of community members.
"We have no idea what all the molecules are," Sternberg said during his opening statement. He said no one has every fully classified fractional asphalt molecules. He said some of the asphalt was likely vaporized and some of it didn't burn completely, creating new substances that didn't just vanish when they hit the air.
Materials in the cloud are going to be deposited on the ground, with the bigger chunks staying near the facility and smaller particles being deposited further downwind from the fire, Sternberg said.
"Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they're not there," Sternberg said. He cautioned people living downwind of the fire's plume about working with the soil and eating food grown in the soil because while plants will consume the particulates, they will linger in the plants. However, he said plants can help clean the soil.
But Sternberg admitted that a lot of what people were going to hear is that they just don't know.
"It's persistent," Rios Mendoza said. She said the molecules can stay in the environment for a long time. She said collecting samples is key to determining the extent of the pollution.
"I'm just here to tell Husky no more," Topping said. She told people not to be afraid to ask questions. "I stood up there, on the other side, and I watched it. And it hurt my heart to see ... we have 10 percent of the freshest water."
The panel then fielded questions from the public.
"I'm a little bit curious ... about your thoughts on how the short-term impact of the plume might compare to the long-term impacts ... very low levels long-term versus short-term impacts of something very brief, which is much more serious," said Dave Podratz, a retired refinery manager who oversaw operations in Superior for Murphy Oil and Calumet. He questioned how someone who lives 20 miles downwind of the refinery fire might compare to someone who lives along a highway, which is exposed to lower levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon over a longer term.
Sternberg said higher PAH levels, particularly from partially burned diesel fuel, are found along highways.
While water was a great concern at a meeting hosted by UW-Extension and Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve on Monday night at Superior Middle School, it was the impact on the soil that many questioned Wednesday night, some offering solutions discovered through research. Others offered help to implement the solutions.
Many were looking for answers or opportunities to determine the risk on their own.
And most agreed that something has to be done to eliminate the hydrogen fluoride at the refinery, for a less dangerous alternative.
"I won't use hydrogen fluoride in my lab," Sternberg said, noting that a single drop can cause a "bone blister," a painful condition that can take up to a year to heal.
"Keep the pressure on," said Kym Young, a local activist. Noting Councilors Tylor Elm and Brent Fennessey attended the meeting Wednesday, she said: "They are listening" and "It's going to take all of us ... stay the course."