MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A class claims in a federal lawsuit that the owners of a northern Wisconsin asphalt refinery did not take steps to prevent an explosion in April that forced locals to flee their homes and fear for their lives.
The complaint – filed Monday in Madison, Wisconsin, federal court by lead attorney Patricia Bloodgood on behalf of three named residents – claims Husky Energy and Superior Refining failed to exercise routine prudence and take proper maintenance measures leading up to the explosion in Superior, forcing the plaintiffs and their families to evacuate the area.
They allege claims of negligence, nuisance, trespass and strict liability, and seek damages not limited to evacuation-related expenses, lost wages and interference with property rights.
The April 26 incident involved a series of explosions and a massive asphalt fire that began around 10 a.m., according to the complaint.
Debris that flew from the largest explosion, which went up to about 200 feet in the air, punctured an asphalt storage tank, spilling roughly 15,000 barrels of asphalt into the refinery and starting a massive fire.
Six injured workers were taken to the hospital, while seven others were treated at the scene. Local hospitals claimed there were 16 patients in all treated for evacuation-related injuries.
The evacuation zone spanned more than 70 square miles, affecting over 27,000 Superior-area residents, including the plaintiffs, the lawsuit states.
They say they were forced to flee their homes and places of work with their families, having to buy food and other supplies on their way to safer accommodations. Superior Mayor Jim Paine lifted the evacuation order the following day.
One Superior resident said the explosion “felt like a bomb,” while a contractor at the Husky Superior Refinery quoted in the complaint said he was “emotional. I thought I was going to die.”
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board arrived on the scene the day of the explosion. On Aug. 2, after months of interviews with workers and residents, pouring over documents and analyzing evidence, the CSB issued a report finding that the cause of the explosion was equipment failure.
The particular pieces of equipment that reportedly failed were slide valves in a fluid catalytic cracking unit that are designed to keep hydrocarbons from mixing with oxygen during the asphalt and gasoline refining process. Internal wear in at least one of these slide valves caused a pressure drop. For roughly 25 minutes, the complaint states, this created conditions that would allow the oxygen and the hydrocarbons to blend, resulting in a flammable mixture.
The Husky Superior Refinery, built in 1950, is Wisconsin’s only refinery of gasoline, asphalt and other petroleum products. It has allegedly been fined in the past for safety violations, including in 2008 when it paid a $179,000 fine to settle more than 30 federal safety violations. The refinery was owned by Murphy Oil at that time. The Alberta, Canada-based Husky Energy bought the refinery last November.
In January 2015, another Husky Energy refinery exploded in Lima, Ohio, although no one had to be evacuated, according to the complaint.
“Despite the January explosion at the Lima refinery, Husky Energy Inc. continued operations and another fire broke out at the Lima refinery just eight months later on September 20, 2015. Then, in January 2018, a large fireball erupted from the Lima refinery, terrifying residents who were still wary after the past two fires,” the lawsuit states.
According to Center for Public Integrity numbers cited in the complaint, up to 180,000 people living in the Superior region could have been injured or killed if a tank of hydrogen fluoride located at the refinery had been compromised during the explosion and subsequent blaze.
The complaint says there continues to be environmental and safety concerns from the incident: The Environmental Protection Agency is still trying to recover any residual chemicals, including firefighting foam, from the local water supply; The U.S. Coast Guard had to use booms to try and prevent any petroleum or related contaminants from polluting the waters of nearby Lake Superior; Toxic chemical compounds from the plume contaminated soil for miles southeast of the refinery; And a University of Minnesota professor advised residents not to plant vegetable gardens in backyards near the refinery.
The complaint says Husky Energy and Superior Refining have reimbursed some Superior residents for accommodations, food and transportation costs related to the incident, but many others have not been paid.
The plaintiffs’ attorney and representatives of Husky Energy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.