Explosion at Superior, Wisconsin oil refinery: Multiple injuries, evacuations ordered

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The aftermath of an explosion and series of fires at the Husky Refinery.

Update (5:38 a.m.) - The evacuation order has been lifted for all areas. Superior Mayor Jim Paine said "all indications are that the refinery site is safe and stable and the air quality is clean and normal."

With a plume of smoke still billowing miles behind as a nearby industrial fire raged on Thursday, Superior Mayor Jim Paine announced an evacuation order for most of his town—though the air remains safe to breathe, he insisted, calling the move a “precautionary measure.”

The evacuation order is still in effect. Mayor Paine will give an update at 10 a.m. Friday morning. As of 9:15 p.m., officials say a small fire at the refinery is still burning, but is under control. Earlier in the evening, crews successfully put out a different fire at the site, but now only a small fire in another section remains.

At least 11 people were hurt following an explosion at the Husky Energy oil refinery. No fatalities were reported and just one person suffered serious injuries as a result of the blast, the cause of which authorities are continuing to investigate.

The product involved in the explosion and fire is believed to be crude oil or asphalt.

Crews were able to extinguish the original fire just under 90 minutes after it was reported at 10:06 a.m., but a second fire erupted again shortly after noon in another asphalt tank that firefighters said was increasingly difficult to put out.

“The hardest thing about fighting an asphalt fire is you have to have enough resources to put it all out at once,” Battalion Chief Scott Gordon said. “If you leave five percent left, that five percent will just spring back to where it was before.”

Officials announced the second fire had been put out just before 7:00 p.m. but cautioned residents that risks remain for anyone within the evacuation zone, which stretches three miles in every direction from the plant, as well as 10 miles to the south.

Superior School District cancelled classes Friday after the city declared a state of emergency and police officers were seen going door-to-door in an attempt to evacuate residents.

Essentia Health facilities in Superior, including the entirety of St. Mary’s Hospital, were also forced to evacuate and reroute patients to another, larger Essentia-run St. Mary’s Hospital in nearby Duluth, Minn. At least 11 inpatients and one emergency room patient not injured by the fire were subsequently transported to Duluth as a result, officials said.

All of the company’s 165 employees and several contractors who were inside the plant at the time of the explosion were accounted for within a few hours, officials said. Still, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it was opening an investigation into the company’s safety practices, the second time the agency has looked into the refinery in three years.

The facility, Wisconsin’s only oil refinery, was bought by Husky Energy last year from Indianapolis-based Calumet Specialty Products Partners. While owned by Calgary in 2015 OSHA levied the company a $21,000 fine for emergency response and flammable liquids violations, with OSHA records showing the violations were marked as settled and the problems were solved by the end of that year.

Husky Fire - Press Release 1: At approximately 10:06 today Superior Fire Department responded to a report of an explosion at Husky Refinery in Superior. There is a report of multiple casualties. Initial reports are at least 20 casualties transported. Multiple agencies have responded.  More information to come when available.   

Husky Fire - Press Release 2: At approximately 10:06 today Superior Fire Department responded to a report of an explosion at Husky Refinery in Superior. There is a report of multiple casualties. Initial reports are at least 6 transported – No report on severity of injuries. Multiple agencies have responded.  Fire reported to be out. Reported a smaller tank explosion. Product is believe to be crude or asphalt. Walking wounded still be accounted for. Scene stable. More information to come.