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OSHA cites Husky Energy subsidiary Superior Refining for April explosion and fire

08 October 2018

On October 2, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said it had cited Superior Refining Company LLC - based in Superior, Wisconsin - for failing to control the use and release of highly hazardous chemicals after an explosion and fire on April 26 that injured several employees. The company faces $83,150 in proposed penalties.

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Investigators cited the refinery for eight serious violations of OSHA’s process safety management procedures, and five other violations including outdated safety procedures, failures to address known hazards, and failed inspections and testing.

"Ensuring the mechanical integrity of critical equipment used during the refinery shutdown operation could have prevented this incident," said OSHA Eau Claire Area Office Director Mark Hysell. "Superior Refining Company LLC has been working cooperatively with OSHA to ensure a comprehensive process safety management program is implemented at the facility before resuming production."

The findings come two months after the US Chemical Safety Board said the massive explosion could have been caused by a worn valve that allowed air to leak and mix with combustible hydrocarbons.

One safety violation cited by OSHA dealt directly with the valve in question. The company did not correct equipment deficiencies in a timely manner, including addressing the failure of the spent catalyst valve, according to OSHA.

OSHA also found that the refinery had failed to identify "critical hazards" in its own manufacturing process, had not developed a written procedure with "clear instructions" for an emergency shutdown, and hadn't adequately trained employees on certain aspects of shutdown procedures.

A spokeswoman for Calgary-based Husky Energy said the company plans to meet with OSHA to discuss the findings.

The April blast sent shrapnel into a tank of asphalt, which eventually caught fire and burned for hours, sending a plume of black smoke and ash far across northwestern Wisconsin. City officials feared that a tank of highly toxic hydrogen fluoride at the plant was also vulnerable, and ordered a near citywide evacuation.

An Environmental Protection Agency worst-case scenario for the plant states that a massive leak of the hydrogen fluoride tank would put 180,000 people at risk, or most of the Twin Ports population. In the days following the explosion and fire, the mayors of Superior and Duluth asked the company to use alternative chemicals and remove the hydrogen fluoride from the site.

Eleven workers were hurt in the blast, and 25 other people sought medical attention. The workers filed a lawsuit in August, alleging they had to run for their lives to escape. A class-action lawsuit filed that same month by some residents of Superior seeks payment for the costs they faced due to fleeing the city.

The OSHA penalties are the largest fines the safety agency has levied on the Superior refinery in a decade. In 2008, the refinery's then owner, Murphy Oil, agreed to pay $179,000 in fines for numerous safety violations, including for safety alarms that had been deactivated or improperly monitored.

The company has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.


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