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Council hears questions, concerns

Questions and concerns dominated the first Council meeting following the fire at Husky Energy refinery fire April 26.

Several members of the public addressed the Superior City Council on Tuesday night after its regular business was complete.

Most came with questions; others had advice to offer as work is underway to determine what happened and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again.

"One thing I've learned over the last several days is the lack of information can also cause panic," said Meg Krausch, an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Krausch presented the council with a list of questions gathered from students and members of the community.

"I'm going to emphasize these are not rhetorical questions," Krausch said. "I'm not expecting answers tonight; I'm going to read them to you and get them on the record."

Krausch asked about the site and the risk of another fire, the role of independent scientists in the investigation, where people could get questions answered, compensation for food growers, where the particulates end up, if there was a willingness to work with UWS on an evacuation plan, why UWS was considered a mustering point, why the city doesn't have a designated shelter and designated helpline, the safety of swimming in Lake Superior. Other questions included Husky's plans for the future of hydrogen fluoride use, why propane is stored so close to the refinery, what tests are being run on the water and soil, when test results and the cause of the explosion will be known and what reconstruction of the refinery will look like.

The council's three-minute limit to address the body left Krausch's questions about the firefighting foam used and Husky's inability to treat it unheard.

"I'm not a resident of Superior, but only due to the vagaries of wind speed and direction, I was not downwind of the toxic plume, said Pat Farrell of Duluth, a soil scientist and cancer survivor. "I appreciate your concern for the public health and safety, but I want to emphasize the risk to the public is not over, and I think it's our duty to tell the public what that risk is."

Reading a statement by Dr. Steven Sternberg, a chemical engineer who specializes in airborne pollution at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Farrell said people would be wise to be concerned in the aftermath of the fire because asphalt contains the heaviest, most complex molecules in crude oil, which are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — PAHs — many of which are known to be carcinogenic. She said when PAHs are burned in an uncontrolled manner as they were in the Husky fire, they leave behind new compounds that could be as or more toxic that the original compound. She said while the danger of inhalation has passed, she said Sternberg's advice is to avoid eating food grown in the fallout zone, not to let children or pets play in the soil for at least one year, replace sand in the sandbox and not play in lakes for at least a month in the fallout zone, defined as a triangle that extends 30 miles south starting in Superior with a 5-mile width extending east and west at the southern end.

She said nut and fruit trees would "probably be OK" according to Sternberg's statement.

Renee Goodrich of Superior said she watched the disaster unfold from her back porch in North End.

"There's so many questions," Goodrich said.

"There was no designated place where to get information," Goodrich said. "People were scrambling around trying to get information."

Mayor Jim Paine said he's met with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent, non-regulatory, non-cabinet federal agency that launched its investigation into the cause of the fire within 18 hours of the start of the fire. The board arrived the evening of April 26 in Superior.

The initial onsite phase of the investigation is expected several weeks to conduct interviews and review evidence, according to the CSB website.

The initial explosion at Husky Energy's oil refinery in Superior took place in the fluid catalytic cracking unit, a senior adviser with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board told Wisconsin Public Radio on Tuesday.

"That is a part of the distillation process where the crude oil is being heated and extracted to create gasoline and petroleum-based products," said Tom Zoeller, senior adviser for the CSB.

Their mission is to determine the probable cause of the explosion and the fire and investigate any environmental impacts and the emergency response. Paine said while the final report could take up to a year to complete, the CSB may issue interim reports as they analyze the facts on the ground.

"They have assured me that if they discover any potential adverse effect on human or environmental health that they will release that information to my office and the public immediately," Paine stated in a prepared statement.

Paine said he's also met with officials from Husky to discuss the use of hydrogen fluoride at the refinery and to keep the public informed about the safety measures they have in place to prevent the chemical from harming the public during the debate.

Husky officials have set up a website where people can get more information for frequently asked questions about the fire and HF at huskyenergy.com/superior/faqs.htm. Updates on the cleanup and recovery are also being posted at douglascountywi.org.

CSB will also have updates on its investigation available at csb.gov.

"There will be periodic updates as we receive them," Paine said.

Businesses and individuals with claims related to the April 26 refinery fire can call the Husky helpline at 855-527-5002.

Husky has asked the public to notify the refinery if any debris has been found and it will be collected. The public can call Husky's helpline and the company will send someone to remove the debris.

Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Danielle Kaeding contributed to this report.

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