Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire
I learned about the Husky Fire just before 11 am on April 26th when I was about to leave the Women’s Health Center in Duluth. A co-worker from Superior rushed into the office and announced that just after 10 am there had been an explosion at the Murphy Oil Refinery, that there are evacuations, and multiple deaths. The director turned on the television in the lobby, which reported 20 casualties. My initial reaction was horror and anger. I felt horror because it seemed as though there were many injuries and deaths. I also felt horror since I was returning home from Superior after working ten hours at Safe Haven (overnight) and three hours at the Women’s Health Center. I didn’t know what I would be returning home to or if I would be able to return home. I felt anger because I just wanted to go to sleep! I had already worked through the night and into the morning. It was a terribly inconvenient time to have an industrial disaster. I texted my housemates Adam and Lucas an alarmed text about evacuations and deaths (which later proved to not be entirely true), finished the last 10 minutes of my shift, and headed home to the unknown of Superior.
(An image that I believe was used in the Duluth News Tribune)
Traffic was normal on the way home. For a moment, I panicked that the Blatnik Bridge was closed, as there was a caravan of large street cleaning vehicles blocking access to the bridge. The bridge was not closed. The vehicles were partaking in the normal activity of cleaning the streets. Still, things were clearly amiss as I could see a giant, black cloud in the distance- spreading menacingly away from the Husky Refinery (which I had until that morning thought was the Murphy Oil Refinery. I was not aware that the Alberta based company, Husky Energy, had purchased the facility in August 2017). Despite the sprawling black cloud, everything in Superior was oddly normal. I noticed someone outside doing yard work. A dog was sitting out in the yard. Young children were playing in a park. I thought it was bizarre and reminded me of Pripyat after the Chernobyl accident. People slept in their beds, then awoke, and went about their business as radiation saturated them. Chernobyl may seem like an unfair comparison, but oddly, the Husky Fire and Chernobyl both happened on April 26th (a collapsed country and thirty two years apart). In any event, at that point of time, there was not as much concern. My roommates didn’t seem concerned yet and the earlier alarm about multiple deaths and evacuations was found to be untrue. (The word casualty does not mean death, but can mean injury- such as casualties of war. However, since the word is often used to mean someone who has been killed, there was some initial misunderstanding about the media use of the word. As for evacuations, as of 11:15 ish when I returned home, there was nothing beyond the immediate area of the disaster (to my knowledge).
I settled into bed, unsettled, but trying not to worry too much. No one else seemed very worried. Not the kids playing or person carrying on the yard work. I spent time looking at the news, but everything seemed to be under control. Before going to bed, I told my roommate Lucas to shut all of the windows, but he laughed at me. I think he even made a Chernobyl joke, about how I had been there, and was the expert now. I couldn’t fall asleep. The window was shut, but I imagined invisible particles entering the house and breathing them as I slept. I thought about dying in my sleep or just inhaling carcinogenic debris. I felt angry again. I felt mad about having worked the night shift and that I was unable to get the rest I needed. Lack of sleep often invokes anger in me. Eventually, I did fall asleep…for about an hour… before Lucas knocked on my bedroom door and said that an area 3 miles around the refinery and 10 miles downwind was being evacuated. There had been more explosions. He said he was heading to Duluth. I was crabby and exhausted, so I said I would just stay in bed. I pulled two more blankets over my head, as if it would give me added protection from the poisonous smoke. Lucas texted me what seemed a frantic message that the traffic over the bridge was extremely backed up and he was stuck. I became more concerned as it seemed that the people of Superior had finally mobilized to escape. The schools had closed. I think the area of evacuation at that time was as near as UW Superior (which isn’t that far from where I live). While I think that I was just outside the evacuation area, three miles is not a magical perimeter- outside of which everyone is safe. Oh, 3.2 miles- that’s cool! Those particles are 100% gone at exactly the three mile mark.
I eventually dragged my extremely tired body out of bed. Tiredness tried hard to battle fear. But eventually fear won as my boyfriend said he was leaving for work early, but that he thought I should leave the house too. He said he wanted to know that I was safe. I am often feel that my needs (such as sleep) don’t matter much to the universe, so it was touching that my safety was concerning. I told him that I would also go to back to work. I work at a domestic violence shelter and our employee break room has a futon. I thought that if I fled Superior, I could go to my job and rest for a while. It is odd how work can be a place of refuge. My work is a shelter- so it is equipped to – well, accommodate the needs of people who need a place to stay. I didn’t rush to go there, but I did call my job to give them a heads up that I would be trying to sleep there. Once my refuge was secured, I ambled around the house trying to throw a few things together. My brain wasn’t in evacuation mode. It was in “What do I need to bring with me to take a nap at work mode?”. I packed only a few things, such as a toothbrush and some toiletries. I also took a shower. Our hot water heater had broken a week prior and had FINALLY been fixed that day. I went a week with only one shower (which I took at UW-Superior’s fitness center). So, showering was a priority above escape from the death cloud.
I snapped a few photos of the cloud on my way out of Superior and then when I arrived in Duluth. After taking the photos, I was happy to report to work and find that my supervisor had fixed up the employee break room nicely for me. She gave me new, clean bedding (not the stained, worn bedding the residents end up with) and had turned the futon into a bed. The shelter had been made aware that CASDA, a domestic violence shelter in Superior, had been evacuated. Safe Haven was ready to accept people staying at CASDA, but in the end, they went to a hotel. As for our own residents, they were gathered around the television, watching the news coverage. The cloud was much larger and darker now. They asked me questions and seemed happy that I was safe. That was also very touching. They are all homeless and have gone through truly awful things. Still, they had enough emotional reserves left to care about a worker at the shelter (who often make their lives harder by enforcing rules or determining the length of their stay.) As I settled down and tried to sleep, my mother called. She did not know about the accident until she drove home and noticed the cloud in the distance. The cloud from the fire could be seen over fifty miles away in Cromwell. She offered that I could stay with her. It was an hour away and I was beyond tired (having obtained about an hour of sleep), so I declined, but said maybe I would depending upon how bad the situation was.
I really didn’t sleep well. I checked the news. There were reports that fire fighters were unable to fight the fire and were just waiting. It was reported that it could burn for days. I also read that there were concerns about a tank of hydrogen flouride. I learned that hydrogen flouride is used at about 50 oil refineries in the US. I also learned that it becomes hydroflouric acid when it contacts moisture, such as that the moisture of the skin, lungs, eyes, etc. and causes burns, blindness, fluid in the lungs, and other nasty health effects. This was the first that I had learned about the tank. The tank was supposed to be near the fire, but there was no reports of HOW close. Nor, was there reports that the tank (which was 150-200 feet away from the uncontrollable blaze) was full of a chemical that could kill thousands of people if the tank exploded. My brain could not turn off. There was too much information to process and too much lack of information to ponder. I may have slept an additional 45 min to an hour, but eventually decided to wake up. Sleep was simply not on the agenda. Instead, I woke up, gathered myself, and decided to go for a walk. By then, it was nearly 7pm and there were reports that the fire had been put out and the evacuation would likely be called off later in the evening. That was encouraging.
Later that night, I joined a few friends for trivia. I talked to Chris about my concerns about the tank of hydrogen flouride, which she agreed was nasty and would kill/injure thousands of people. She looked at a google map of the Husky Refinery and we tried to figure out where the tank was in relation to the fire. This information was not available to the public at that time. She concluded that it might be one of the smaller tanks by the railroad tracks, as it is unlikely that they would want to transport the chemical that far from the trains that carry it. This didn’t allay my fears, since these small tanks were not far from the fire (but father away than the ACTUAL tank turned out to be). Lucas, one of my roommates, decided he was going back to Superior despite the ongoing concern about the tank. Adam had already been in Superior for several hours, since he needed to take care of his chickens and felt he was safe in the basement. This made it difficult for me to sustain my concern. I definitely wanted to go home (since I had slept a sum of two hours in the last day and a half or so). I hadn’t packed anything. The evacuation didn’t really come with instructions of what to take or for how long to expect. Ultimately, I returned to Superior since I didn’t want to be the one roommate out of four who was too chicken to go home. After all, even the chickens weren’t evacuated. There is a stigma about being fearful. It is a sign of weakness. Personally, I don’t think that I made a rational choice. I also don’t feel that my house mates were entirely rational about remaining. But, I think that making smart choices requires information. I don’t think we had the information required to make smart choices of staying in Superior or not. The risks of the tank exploding and nature of hydroflouric acid would have been important information. The suggestion that the evacuation would end as early as 9pm also created false hope and a false sense of security. Smart choices also require the material support to make a choice. In my case, in a very real sense I was extremely tired. By the end of trivia, I could no longer remember my telephone number. I also could not remember who Anthony Bourdain was (a trivia answer I knew, but could not remember). I don’t think I had the mental wherewithal to drive a safe distance or make an informed decision. In a way, I feel that I failed my friends by not being more insistent and concerned for our safety.
I returned home sometime after midnight. I noted that there was a chemical odor in the air, but continued inside to my bed. The evacuation order was not lifted until 6am. I was dead tired, but only slept a few hours. Again, I was obsessed with looking up snippets of news. But, throughout the night, Facebook and the media were sleeping. There were no new updates. By morning, every celebrated how the community came together. Duluth sent buses to Superior. Emergency respondents from around the area pitched in. There were no deaths. School children were evacuated to the DECC. People opened their homes to evacuees. And, the air was said to be normal. For the most part, life resumed as normal. Businesses opened. People went about life as usual. Despite the air quality being deemed “normal” this seemed impossible, considering that a giant asphalt fire raged on for eight hours creating a plume of black smoke that could be seen 50 miles away. But, it made me wonder what normal is? Maybe that amount of pollutants in the air is normal – in places like Los Angelas or Beijing where millions of cars fill the air with exhaust each day. I considered that perhaps our baseline or our normal is the equivalent of a raging asphalt fire. What is normal? Normal does not necessarily equate to healthy….
The first lesson that I drew from this was that there should be ongoing conversations with friends or loved ones about what to do in the case of disasters. I feel that we should challenge each other and ask lots of questions. Where would we evacuate? Why wouldn’t you want to evacuate? (I have chickens, I like my bed, I feel safe, I don’t like being a guest at someone’s house, etc.) What would it take to convince you that this is needed? Where would we take pets? How would we get somewhere safe? What are important things you would want to pack? I think that these kind of conversations could get everyone on the same page. There is a social dynamic to evacuating. People look to each other for cues that a situation is safe or unsafe or if they are too worried or too unconcerned. I think that conversation could help family groups or friend groups make better decisions in crisis.
I feel like a nutty, apocalypse prepared person with a year of food stocked in my fallout shelter. But really, disasters should be expected. This is because we live in a profit driven society. Safety precautions involve increased fixed capital costs to capitalists. The drive for profits means that there will be short cuts. I am sure that anyone who has worked anywhere can see this. Safety is usurped for profits when workers are not properly trained, are given defective equipment, tools or machinery is old or outdated, work days are lengthened, workplaces are understaffed, workers are overly tired, or any of the very ordinary conditions across all sectors of the economy. Husky Energy has a history of fires and oil spills at other locations and the Superior refinery in particular had a $21,000 fine in 2015 for an OSHA violation related to chemical storage and emergency response. While the fine was paid and OSHA reported the problem was resolved, the fine is nothing compared to the nearly $10 billion revenue that Husky Energy makes each year. The drive for profits will always drive the trend towards lack of safety. Therefore, any work place is a potential source of injury. However, some work places operate on such a scale or with such dangerous materials that the danger extends from the every day risks faced by particular sets of workers to entire communities. I remember in 1992, when Duluth and Superior were evacuated due to the benzene spill. Although I was a child living over 50 miles away, I watched the news as the cloud spread. I worried that it would come all the way to us. My father worked in West Duluth (where he had suffered several serious on the job injuries over the years- the individual side of worker safety). He was among the 80,000 people who evacuated that day. Thus, I have lived through two disasters of a scale large enough to require evacuation. Will it be the last?
Struggle is the Only Buffer Against Excesses of Capitalism:
I think this is an important moment for people in Duluth and Superior, since it is an opportunity fight for more safety. There are plenty of concerned people who want more information and more testing of air and soil. Many want an end to the use of hydrogen flouride at Husky Energy. Some want an end to the refinery altogether or have used this as an opportunity to not only critique Husky, but Embridge, which also uses the facility. The crisis has revealed many gaps in how disasters are handled, how environments are monitored, and how safety is ensured. If this anger congeals into struggle, we can hopefully curtail some of the worst excesses of capitalism in our community and lessen the risk of future disasters. The small measures of safety and environmental protection that we enjoy were won by struggle and will only be defended by the struggles of workers, but also social movements like environmental movements. I have seen some cynicism about the effectiveness of protest, but I think that this is the perfect time for protest, petitions, public hearings, or the number of other methods of resistance which are being planned or discussed.
Honestly, it is hard to care about everything all of the time. I have felt fatigued by activism and am often impressed by the amount of emotional energy that others can put into continuing to inform members of our community about this disaster. I lack that energy. I care…but I am tired. Like the day that I didn’t get enough sleep, I just want to pull my blankets over my head and hide from the world. I commend their efforts. It is very easy to be complacent. Should I plant a garden this year? Should I care? Everything I eat and drink is inundated with plastics and toxins of some kind. The air I breathe is full of pollutants from the everyday functioning of our fossil fuel based economy. At some point in my life, like almost everyone else, I am going to get cancer. There are thousands of terrible things that happen every moment of every day. That doesn’t even include the ordinary challenges of simply living. Everything is terrible all of the time. The only way to make it better is to fight for a better world But, that suuuuure is tiresome. Somehow, we must work together to challenge complacency. I don’t have an good answer about how to care- but I think it helps to hold on to and grow that kernel of anger. Anger is frowned upon, especially for women- but I care when I remember something that made me angry. I am angry that I wasn’t well informed. I am angry that many people in the world live in the shadow of the next catastrophe. I am angry that life on our planet is going extinct and that we altering our planet in terrifying, irreversible ways. I am angry that every day living for workers means potential injury from fast food deep fryers to nuclear reactors. Yep, there we go. Anger. Gotta love it. It is as refreshing as a hot shower after a week without a hot water heater.
Knowledge is Power:
This is a super cliche conclusion, but really, it is helpful to know things! I didn’t even know the NAME of the refinery, much less what it does or how it functions. I still don’t know much about the Husky Energy Refinery. I am thankful that there are many people in the community who are asking questions and sharing resources to learn more.
I am sure I could draw other conclusions, but that’s all I’ve got for now. There are other local activists who are far more informed and whose opinions have congealed into more meaningful reflection. While I have been a lazy activist lately, I am committed to being a part of the struggle in the months ahead. On Wednesday of this week there will be a protest against the liability waivers that Husky is having injured people sign so that they are not liable for future health problems. We will all have long memories of the evacuation day. With time, memories often vanish into novelty. So, I hope it is not a memory of an isolated event but an ongoing struggle and conversation.