To Deer Park residents, fire a reminder of ‘like living on a fault line’
Samantha Ketterer and Emily Foxhall March 18, 2019 Updated: March 18, 2019 4:37 p.m.
Jodie Thompson pulled over on Independence Parkway, less than a mile away from a petrochemical plant that was leaking plumes of black smoke into the sky.
In her 34 years living in Deer Park, she’d seen flares before. But this was different.
“I trust that they actually know what they’re doing, but inside, I have this doubt,” Thompson said Monday afternoon, watching the flames from inside the safety of her car.
The fire had raged at Intercontinental Terminals Company for more than 26 hours by the early afternoon and spread to eight holding tanks. Even after a shelter-in-place was lifted Monday morning, the fire was still expected to burn for two more days.
The ordeal, in some ways, was part of life in Deer Park, an east Harris County city of more than 33,000 people. Residents said they were familiar with the risks that come with living by the refineries and chemical plants. At a certain point, you have to stop worrying, they said.
“You can’t fret about it,” said Thompson, who is 60. “What are you going to do? You choose to live here.”
Holly Ball, 47, is a newer resident to Deer Park, having lived in the city for just a year. She’s noticed the puffing smoke stacks at the refineries, of course, but wasn’t aware of a threat like this, she said.
Like Thompson and many other residents on Monday, Ball parked her car to take photos of the smoke spreading miles west into Houston. She planned to send them to her friends in Louisiana.
“It’s scary,” she said. Her dog barked in the seat next to her. “It’s scary.”
On Facebook, people responded to official updates with more questions. They wanted to know more about what exactly was happening and what the risks were to their health.
Would the city of Deer Park be evacuated? Was it possible the plant would explode? The shelter-in-place had been in Deer Park, but what about people in the close-by city of Pasadena? And in La Porte?
Some people wrote of alarm sirens that should have gone off but haven’t worked for some time. Even with the shelter-in-place lifted, looking up at the sky, it was hard for many to believe air quality was fine. Some wrote of symptoms they were experiencing.
One person said she had trouble breathing overnight. Two others wrote of burning sensations in their eyes. Another person decided to leave the area because their child was having trouble breathing. Some said they were simply nervous to sleep.
Bernice Oehrlein, 78, pushed a cart in the morning through the Food Town grocery store in Deer Park, about 5 miles southwest of the plant. She recently had a bad bout with pneumonia, so the fire is concerning for health reasons, she said.
“I have a hard time breathing anyways,” Oehrlein said.
At a Starbucks just down the road, Cindy Richards and her daughter drank coffee instead of going on their normal Monday walk.
Richards, a 67-year-old who lives in Pasadena, recalled the drive to Deer Park, before she realized a fire had clouded up the sky.
“I was like, ‘It’s a little overcast,'” she said. But then, “I come a little closer – ‘That’s smoke.'”
Richards doesn’t pay too much attention to the factories anymore, although she said they used to be more top-of-mind when she lived off of Sims Bayou, closer to some of the refineries.
Her daughter, 35-year-old Robyn French, lives close to the plant in Deer Park with her husband and two children. Flares, smoke and a gassy smell have become a normal occurrence, and she knows what to do in the case of an explosion.
But French knew better than to ignore the smoke on Monday, even though she said she felt fairly safe.
She made sure Sunday and Monday that her son wasn’t outside on his bike, breathing in anything possibly dangerous. And the unknown is still concerning.
“Am I still able to eat the Swiss chard and kale I’m growing in my garden?” she asked. “That’s a valid question to me. Will my oranges be full of chemicals when they’re full grown?”
Heather Trevino, 42, grew up in Deer Park and lives there now with her 9-year-old daughter. She said she had taken shelter before, but didn’t recall an incident as long and intense as this one.
Trevino saw the smoke rising above her neighbor’s roof Sunday. Her eyes and throat itched. When she got the alert to shelter-in-place, she knew to bring in her two dogs and shut off the A/C.
Trevino faintly heard the sound of the alarms that she said are tested every Saturday at noon. She put on some movies for her daughter, who also learned in school what to do when a shelter-in-place was ordered.
“We kind of get it ingrained in us,” Trevino said. “Living here, it’s just kind of part of what you accept, that there’s something that could possibly happen.”
Thompson likened it to an earthquake-prone area.
“It’s probably like living on a fault line,” she said. “It doesn’t happen very often, but the possibility is always there. In the back of your mind, you push it back. It’s out of your control.”
Anthony, a 36-year-old who works at a nearby plant, said he had to take the day off because of his workplace’s proximity to ITC. He declined to give his last name because of his employer.
While Anthony said he didn’t believe the air quality in the area is particularly bad because of the incident, he’s still concerned of the possibility of an explosion.
“It’s not anything that can really be taken lightly,” he said. “There is a flash point.”
No effort to fight Superior refinery fire; evacuations could last days
By News Tribune 26 April, 2018, 4:40 p.m.
A series of explosions and fires rocked the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior on Thursday, sending a black plume of acrid smoke across the city, forcing massive evacuations and sending several people to local hospitals.
At least 11 people were confirmed injured in hospitals in Duluth and Superior, one with a serious blast injury, Essentia Health and St. Luke’s hospital officials said.
No fatalities were reported.
Essentia Health announced it was closing all of its Superior locations including evacuating everyone from its Superior hospital with all patients going to its Duluth facilities.
No details were available on the extent of refinery damage or what caused the initial explosion which occurred just after 10 a.m., apparently in a tower near an asphalt tank. The tank punctured and asphalt spewed onto the ground.
A second, larger fire erupted just after noon with multiple explosions, sending another thick, black cloud for miles.
Collin Schade, refinery manager for Husky, told reporters that the facility was preparing for a May shutdown for servicing and inspection and that most of the smoke and fire was from asphalt burning at the scene. He said it may be some time before any cause is determined.
Because of the intensity of the fire Superior Fire Department officials said firefighters were standing by but not attempting to extinguish the main blaze. Firefighters were working to put out grass fires and other small fires caused by the major blaze, and were preparing for a potential attack on the fire with foam and water – but it was unclear how soon that could occur.
Nick Alexander, Superior police chief, said the fire could continue to burn for days.
Evacuation orderedBy early afternoon a north wind gusting to 20 mph appeared to be fanning the flames and pushing the smoke mostly south, with National Weather Service in Duluth radar showing the plume wafting as far as Solon Springs, nearly 20 miles away .
At a 3 p.m. press conference, Mayor Jim Paine said everyone within a 3-mile radius of the refinery should evacuate. Alexander said those who leave should plan to be gone a few days.
City and county officials also said that everyone who lived or worked within 10 miles south of the fire also should evacuate due to the toxic nature of the spreading smoke plume.
“If in doubt… just leave. Find a place to go,” Paine said.
Many of Superior’s main roads were clogged to gridlock with traffic at early afternoon as residents tried to move away from the smoke plume.
Residents who evacuate and need shelter are suggested to gather at The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, Miller Hill Mall or the Hermantown Public Safety building which were opening doors to any evacuees who need a place to stay.
Superior school officials said public school students in the city were evacuated to Amsoil headquarters at 1101 Susquehanna Ave. where parents waited in traffic jams to pick up their children. All school events for the day are canceled.
The Duluth Transit Authority was sending busses to help move evacuees to safety. Officials at Duluth’s Marshall School said any Superior students were welcome to remain there into the evening.
The University of Wisconsin Superior and the Superior and Maple school districts are canceling schools again on Friday as a precaution.
Many businesses also closed and evacuated, including Superior Water, Light and Power and the Superior Family YMCA, gas stations and grocery stores. Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College closed, cancelling all scheduled classes and events for the remainder of the day.
Superior Mayor Jim Paine said he reached out to Duluth Mayor Emily Larson to take in evacuees if needed.
A second wave of employees and contractors were rapidly leaving the scene after 12:30 p.m. as a series of seven or eight more explosions occurred at 12:40 p.m. when fire trucks were seen moving away from the fire.
Earlier in the morning witnesses said they saw at least seven ambulances enter the facility, with helicopter ambulances also shuttling to and from the refinery and the Richard I. Bong Airport in Superior. Douglas County Deputy Medical Examiner Paul Stein told the News Tribune at noon that he heard there are 20 total injuries but no fatalities.
Contractors at scene of blastEric Mathews, a boilermaker for Wales, Wis.-based CTS Inc. contractors working inside the refinery, said he was about 200 yards away on break when the blast occurred.
It was like “a big sonic boom and rattled your brain,” Mathews told the News Tribune. “I was running and then the debris started falling out of the air … I stopped under a pipe rack then waited for the debris to stop falling.”
Mathews said most or all of his fellow contractors were on break, in blast-proof shelters at the scene, when the first explosion occurred.
“The really lucky part is that it happened during our break so all of our people were in blast shacks,” Mathews said.
Another contractor walking out of the scene said he thought he was “going to die.”
News Tribune photographer Bob King, who flew over the site in an airplane on two different occasions, said one of the large, white storage tanks at the refinery was fractured and that a thick black liquid was pouring out onto the ground.
King said the smoke plume “smelled like burning rubber” and that the intense heat from the fire tossed the small plane in different directions.
Passersby and people nearby said they felt the first explosion rock buildings up to a mile away.
“It felt like a bomb,” said Katey Geistfeld, who works at the Challenge Center at the nearby Mariner Mall. “Everything kind of shook.”
Employees of the refinery and multiple contractors working in the facility were evacuated nearby at first and then further away as the fire rekindled and expanded.
“It shook the houses all over. They felt it at Belknap Plaza. … Tons of people were trying to get down there. They should be staying out,” said Mark Androsky, owner of Stadium Towing who was watching from just outside the refinery. Androsky was using his wrecker to block traffic at one point to allow emergency vehicles to enter.
Superior police have asked people to stay away from the area.
Mayor says city preparedThe mayor said city agencies and refinery crews have trained jointly for disasters at the facility.
“This community is aware we have an oil refinery. We’re prepared for this. We’ve done extensive training,” Paine said. “We’ve invested in equipment and infrastructure. We probably have the best fire department in the country to respond to an event like this.”
State Rep. Rick Milroy issued a statement that today’s “disaster at the refinery in Superior has left everyone with a deep sense of worry and heavy hearts for all of the workers and families involved. Like most Superiorites, I have a lot close friends who work at the pant. Injuries have been reported, but thank God that no fatalities have been reported. I ask that everyone keep all of the workers, first responders, and their families in their prayers as they secure the facility and get the injured medical attention.”
Mel Duvall, manager of media and issues for Calgary-based Husky Energy, said he had no information on where inside the refinery the initial explosion occurred. The company was planning a five-week turnaround starting in May, meaning parts or all of the plant would be shut down.
Officials at Enbridge Energy, which own a massive oil pipeline terminal and storage facility with millions of gallons of petroleum products stored just across the street form the refinery fire, said their facility has not been impacted.
“The Husky Terminal is across the street from Enbridge’s Superior Terminal. This incident has not impacted Enbridge’s Superior Terminal operations. Most Enbridge terminal employees have been evacuated except for a small crew who continue to monitor the situation,’’ said Jennifer Smith, an Enbridge spokeswoman. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Husky employees and their families.”
Refinery had past violationsIn 2015 the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Calumet $21,000 over emergency response and flammable liquids violations. Those violations were marked as settled and the problems solved by the end of that year.
It was the only OSHA enforcement action taken against the refinery in the past 20 years, according to a search of the agency’s database.
In 2012 and 2013 there were four reports of hydrogen sulfide releases due to power outages, according to the National Response Center.
The refinery has not been fined over hazardous waste since 1999, according to the Environmental Protection Agency
The refinery’s most recent Risk Management Plan was submitted in 2012 and states: “In the unlikely event of a catastrophic release, the refinery, working in conjunction with local emergency management staff, is well prepared to respond and mitigate adverse consequences to the community or the environment.”
Husky took over in 2017Husky Energy concluded its purchase of the refinery in November, spending $492 million to acquire the refinery from Calumet. Husky said there were no changes planned for the facility but was planning to continue a $30 million upgrade started by Calumet.
About 180 people are employed at Wisconsin’s sole refinery, which provides the Northland with gasoline, asphalt and other specialty petroleum products. About 50,000 barrels — or 2.3 million gallons — of oil per day can be processed at the refinery, located at 2407 Stinson Ave.
Along with the refinery, Husky took control of two asphalt terminals and two product terminals, a marine terminal, 3.6 million barrels in storage and a marketing business.
The Superior refinery was built in 1950, acquired by Murphy Oil in 1958 and sold to Indianapolis-based Calumet for $475 million in 2011.
Husky Energy said Wisconsin’s lone refinery had averaged 37,000 barrels per day of production in the first three months of this year, according to an earnings statement released Thursday morning.
Check back for updates.
News Tribune reporters Brooks Johnson, Jimmy Lovrien, Jana Hollingsworth and Peter Passi and Superior Telegram reporter Maria Lockwood contributed to this story.