‘Ineffective’ Safeguard Cited in Husky Oil Refinery Blast in Wisconsin

By | December 12, 2018

An “ineffective” safeguard failed to prevent an explosive mixing of air and fuel at a Husky Energy refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, leading to a blast and fire in the plant’s gasoline-producing unit in April, a U.S. industrial safety group says.

Air seeped through a hole in a valve within a fluidic catalytic cracking unit (FCCU), the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said, causing an April 26 explosion that led to a massive fire and a 24-hour-long evacuation of residents living within miles of the plant.

The board said 36 people sought medical treatment after the blast, including 11 working at the refinery. The plant was undergoing maintenance at the time.

Husky, according to the CSB, had only considered a failure of the valve when locked open, not a failure when it was closed, according to an updated report the board presented of its months-long investigation at a meeting Wednesday in Superior.

The failures leading to the Superior refinery explosion were similar to those that caused a 2015 explosion in an FCCU at a Torrance, California, refinery then owned by Exxon Mobil Corp . Exxon sold the refinery to PBF Energy in 2016.

“Prior to both incidents, the process hazard analyzes identified scenarios in which hydrocarbons flowed into the air side of the FCCU and vice versa due to a failure of the spent catalyst slide valve (SCSV), but the safeguards listed to protect against those scenarios were ineffective,” the board said.

The CSB, created by the U.S. Clean Air Act, has no regulatory or enforcement authority but is charged with determining the causes of chemical plant explosions and fires and making recommendations to government and industry.

“Given the similarities between these two incidents, the CSB will be examining areas of further improvement that need to be taken by industry,” the board said.

FCCUs use a fine, silica catalyst in high heat to make gasoline from gas oil and the passage of the sand-like catalyst over the slide valve at the Superior refinery wore a hole in it.

A mixture of air and hydrocarbon within the unit can easily find an ignition source in the 1,300 degree Fahrenheit (715 Celsius) operating temperature of the FCCU.

The Husky refinery was shut after the April explosion. Husky expects to restart production at the plant in 2020.

Most CSB investigations take up to a year to complete.

Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by David Gregorio)

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