Refinery Explosion Brings Immediate Action from Research Reserve

The Takeaway: The Lake Superior Research Reserve helped officials address public concerns about water, air, and food safety.

In April 2018 a tank explosion at a Husky Energy refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, sparked a chemical fire that injured 20 people, spread a toxic plume over the Lake Superior watershed, and triggered emergency evacuations for people living within three miles of the refinery and 10 miles south of the blast. Personnel from the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve jumped into action the day of the fire to help ensure water safety, and they worked to convene a forum for public safety information.

Within hours of the blast, these staffers collected stream samples at the reserve, which is located just two miles from the refinery. Researchers at the University of Minnesota-Duluth used the sample data as a benchmark to determine whether water was safe to drink and microplastic waste presented a public hazard.

Less than three weeks after the disaster, a community “listening session” enabled people to ask officials and scientific experts about the disaster’s potential impact on human health, the safety of livestock and waterfowl, home gardening and local produce, and many other concerns. Planning and outreach by the Lake Superior Research Reserve and Douglas County/University of Wisconsin made this event possible.

Questions from the public were sent to local officials, the Wisconsin Department of Public Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Husky Energy leaders. Responses to some of these concerns are featured on the reserve’s site and other government sites.

The State of Wisconsin is leading the government response to this incident. Other partners include the Douglas County Health Department, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Wisconsin Departments of Health Services and of Natural Resources. (2019)

More Information: Listening Session

Partners: Douglas County Health Department, Douglas County/University of Wisconsin-Extension, Lake Superior Research Reserve, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, University of Minnesota-Duluth, and Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services and Department of Natural Resources