How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Refinery

On April 26 at the Husky Energy Oil Refinery in Superior, public safety officials responding to a series of petroleum explosions that rocked the area were also concerned a tank holding 78,000 lbs. of hydrogen fluoride was going to explode. Being unfamiliar with this substance, perhaps as many of you were, I was compelled to explore the many wonders and uses of hydrogen fluoride.

What with the giant fireballs and smoke plumes being visible for miles around, followed by extensive news coverage with some outlets even reworking the disaster footage into an advertisement of how good a job they’re doing keeping us up to date, we’ve now learned there is a container in our midst holding vast quantities of an extremely hazardous chemical which turns into a powerful acid when it comes into contact with moisture and people.

While it should be of some consolation we pay smart people with degrees and training to protect us, on that day they were busy worrying this giant tank of hydrogen fluoride would explode, and about what might happen if it did. Perhaps because they didn’t want us to panic, officials decided not to warn those beyond the immediate area of the potential danger until after the disaster was under control. No harm, no foul. But many questions arose that day, such as how many people downwind of the explosion or in the immediate area did not evacuate?

Nobody knows how narrowly a truly catastrophic scenario was averted, but of course one good piece of steel shrapnel from the explosions could’ve ruptured the nearby tank holding the 39 tons of hydrogen fluoride. Had Thursday’s winds been from the east at 15-20mph, not uncommon in April, they would’ve sent a giant cloud of acid vapor over Duluth leaving thousands of residents little time to evacuate. Roads would’ve jammed like they did during Duluth’s 1992 benzine spill, and those in the kill-zone would’ve been awkwardly stranded with the acid cloud giving them precious few moments to reflect as they went blind, skin started to bubble and blister, and lungs hemorrhage before they met their horrific end in a slow excruciating manner. Does it sound like a really bad dream to you too?

Depending on how you prefer your slow agonizing death, a simple Google search reveals hydrogen fluoride’s devastating effects on people as being similar to the infamous “mustard gas” used in the first world war — a chlorine-based chemical weapon outlawed by the international community over a century ago. Yet the large pool of hydrogen fluoride in your backyard today is enough to kill and maim everyone not wearing a Hazmat suit for miles around, or whoever’s in the path of prevailing winds if an explosion were to rupture the tank as it very likely almost did Thursday. In what appears to be a colossal understatement, the Duluth News Tribune quoted the Superior fire chief saying the 78,000 lbs. of hydrogen fluoride at the refinery in Superior poses an unnecessary threat to the community, as much less harmful alternatives are readily available.

A giant disaster such as this might’ve very easily eclipsed all the combined suffering caused by America’s most infamous serial killers, while receiving far less attention. In the old days, snake charmers in the traveling medicine shows who were caught poisoning, or otherwise generally stealing from the townsfolk often didn’t make it through the night. They’d be tarred and feathered, sent downstream, or maybe even fed to the pigs or wolves. Maybe citizens back then just weren’t as resigned to corporations killing for profit as we are now. But nowadays, stupid is everywhere. Stupid is as stupid does, and it’s doing just fine. Take for instance deaths caused from texting and driving, this will most likely far surpass all those caused by refineries and probably even corporations in the United States, minus those who sell alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. But still, it amazes me how much we’re fine with being slaughtered by some of these more insidious hidden methods, as long as whatever it is doesn’t have a face. And that’s just one of the reasons I don’t own a monkey.

Authorities have surely made note of this warning shot fired over the bow of our majestic waters and will be investigating possible alternatives, but I would still implore all of you to be mindful of your surroundings. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Cut away and not toward when using a sharp knife. Don’t smoke around flammables. And always come prepared. You’re on stage, and you’re the star. You never know when it’ll be your debut, or your grand finale. It could be your own personal exegesis.

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