Lake Superior Reserve Responds to Chemical Fire

Jun 18, 2018 | Lake Superior, Wisconsin, Prepared Communities

Photo courtesy of Deanna Erickson.
On April 26, an asphalt tank exploded at Husky Energy’s Wisconsin refinery, just over two miles from our Lake Superior Reserve. In the ensuing chemical fire, 20 people were injured, residents within a three mile radius of the refinery and up to 10 miles south of the blast were evacuated, and a plume of toxic gas extended over the Lake Superior watershed. Since then, the Reserve and their partners have stepped up to monitor the fall out, keep area residents informed, and facilitate community dialogue.

In the long-term, this incident likely will have lasting impacts on Wisconsin communities and environments. In the short-term, it’s reshaping how staff at the Lake Superior Reserve think about “protecting people and places,” and how that will change in the future. We are grateful that our colleagues are safe and—amazingly—committed to hosting the Annual Meeting this November. We are also grateful that they are willing to share their experiences in the weeks after the fire and what they are learning about how to prepare for future emergencies.

Thursday, April 26

Some people at the Reserve heard a loud explosive sound and the office building shook. Lights and power flickered. They thought it was a transformer. By noon, they were flooded with emails and call alerts about the emergency.

Photo courtesy of Hanah Ramage.
By noon…
There was confusion and chaos. Education Coordinator Deanna Erickson and Education Specialist Ryan Feldbrugge had been at the Great Lakes Aquarium with a field trip. They were about about to drive over the bridge to Superior and when they saw the fire’s plume and texted Reserve Manager Erika Washburn. Evacuation maps changed frequently, and everyone at the Reserve was encouraged to go home and/or evacuate. (Research Coordinator Shon Schooler evacuated his family.) Washburn reached out to NOAA OCM leadership, Reserve Advisory Board members and the regional NOAA National Ocean Service lead lead Heather Stirratt. “The evacuation led to so many unanticipated issues,” Washburn observes. “People in the community didn’t know where to go, students were stuck, hotels were full, and kennels were overloaded. Disasters at multiple scales were unfolding everywhere.”
Celeste Venolia brought education and science together in her Hollings Fellowship.
→ What they learned: More preparation will cut down on the lag time for communication in future emergencies. Reserve staff have talked about building their communications network, keeping phones and emergency contact lists at the ready, and putting a text message alert system in place. It’s also been helpful for them to understand the different communications capacities in their network, e.g., who can easily put out a press release.

By late afternoon…
The fire was at its worst, with fireballs and thick black smoke visible from Duluth. Reserve staff were concerned that petrochemicals and fire fighting chemicals might be getting into nearby Newton Creek, which receives runoff from the refinery and drains into the estuary, which is close to the sandbar inlet to Lake Superior. Schooler recommended putting an auto sampler into the creek. System-Wide Monitoring Program Specialist Hannah Ramage and Erickson collected the gear and brought it to Newton Creek. The water was frozen over, so they “had to hoof it in.” This was the first of the evening sampling runs that take about four hours to complete. “We’ve had some big floods over the past several years that we have not monitored,” observes Erickson. “I was really glad that everyone at the Reserve was willing and able to respond to this event. That’s one of the benefits of being at a Reserve; we are small and nimble and able to capture data more easily than a large agency.”

Pop up NERRS sampling station created after the fire. Photo courtesy of Deanna Erickson.
→What they learned: The local research and monitoring community needs to be plugged into emergency response and become part of the disaster team. For example, for samples to be used, everything has to be documented and sampled according to protocol and logged on a chain of custody form.

Friday, April 27
The Reserve had to cancel their regular programs. They felt secure enough to stay on site; the plume had not shifted direction over the Reserve’s buildings. They were lucky to have the help of Mike Koutnik, chair of the Lake Superior Friends, who made a map of the evacuation zone. US EPA also produced a slideshow with maps of the plume, weather and wind—it gave them a good sense of what tributaries to look at. “This event caught us all by surprise. Many of us didn’t know the level of potential risk to the Reserve,” says Koutnik.  “Our headquarters was in the evacuation zone, and that zone includes forests, coastal wetlands, and thousands of residents and hundreds of business and other organizations that benefit from these resources. We plan to discuss how to support the Reserve in emergency preparedness and response, and what, if any, direct role a friends group can play. ”

Map courtesy of Mike Koutnik, chair of the Lake Superior Reserve Friends
By evening…
Newton Creek samples collected by Reserve staff had a distinctive odor. Because the incident was terrestrial, official monitoring for coastal waters had not been fully activated. Reserve staff felt they needed to work with partners to fill the gaps. Washburn reached out to NOAA again and started calls with the Lake Superior Research Institute (LRSI), Large Lakes Observatory (LLO), US EPA lab in Duluth, and local Sea Grant programs throughout the weekend. Together they came up with a plan to address monitoring. US EPA provided the specialized bottles needed for sampling; LSRI offered additional storage space; Minnesota Sea Grant released rapid response funds to launch a boat; Wisconsin Sea Grant offered funds for analysis and the Reserve, LLO, and researchers ran sampling runs in the bay and inlet to Lake Superior.

“Erika and her team at the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve were so quick to respond to the Superior Refinery fire. Their early coordination efforts resulted additional PFAS samples from the first few days that would not have been captured without their quick efforts, “ says Cherie Hagen, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources Lake Superior Program.

Photo courtesy of Hannah Ramage.
→ What they are learning: Reserve staff are already thinking about how to better coordinate and monitor with partners in emergency situations. This includes practical measures like stocking glass bottles at the Reserve—you can’t sample petroleum-contaminated water in plastic bottles—developing plans for storage of mass samping across partner facilities, and joint communications strategies.

In the following weeks…
There was an explosion of anger and fear on social media about the incident and Reserve staff have been trying to share factual, non-inflammatory information as often as possible. They held a listening session for the public in coordination with County Extension staff and University of Wisconsin volunteers so they could bundle up concerns and hand them off to the Department of Natural Resources, US EPA and local, county, state, and federal governments. The information gathered at the session is accessible in a summary report. Washburn anticipates the Reserve will be in a position to pull together teams of experts and arrange science-based briefings for the public; this may even be the theme of their science cafe lecture series.

Reserve staff are keeping eye on Newton Creek, which has been listed as an aquatic contaminated site. They are also looking for people and organizations with expertise in the chemistry of PAHs or refinery fires. And in true NERRS spirit, the Reserve’s new Coastal Training Program Coordinator Karina Heim has stepped right up to bat. She is already developing trainings and workshops around topics like emergency management for the public and risk communication for local elected officials and government agencies.


Photo courtesy of Erika Washburn.
→ What they’ve learned: Reserve staff found their niche as unbiased facilitators who could be trusted by residents in an emergency situation. The Reserve’s advisory boards include a lot of community representatives who could play a bigger role in sharing what the Reserve learns with the public in the future.
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