January 10, 2019

CSB Finds Similarities Between Refinery Explosions in 2015 and 2018

An update published by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in December provides the latest information from the agency’s investigation into the 2018 explosion and fire at the Husky Superior Refinery in Superior, Wis. On April 26, 2018, the refinery was shutting down in preparation for a five-week turnaround when the explosion and subsequent fire occurred. A portion of the city was evacuated, and 36 people sought medical attention, including 11 refinery and contract workers who suffered OSHA-recordable injuries. According to CSB’s update, evidence collected so far suggests similarities with a previous agency investigation of the February 2015 explosion at the ExxonMobil Refinery in Torrance, Calif.

The 2015 explosion in Torrance was caused by an accumulation of hydrocarbons inside of the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking unit, where products such as gasoline are produced. A slide valve acting as a barrier to prevent hydrocarbons from flowing into the air side of the unit failed, and hydrocarbons flowed in and ignited a piece of equipment. CSB’s new investigative update states that both the Superior and Torrance explosions “resulted from the inadvertent mixing of hydrocarbons with air inside the unit that found an ignition source.” In both explosions, debris impacted equipment in surrounding units and caused fires and releases into the atmosphere. In Torrance, two workers were injured, and the explosion caused serious damage and scattered catalyst dust up to a mile away from the facility.

CSB noted several other similarities between the two incidents. For example, both explosions occurred while the fluid catalytic cracking unit was not in normal operation and toward the end of an operating cycle. And in both cases, the companies relied on a spent catalyst slide valve to maintain a barrier between the hydrocarbon and air sides of the fluid catalytic cracking unit during non-routine operation.

The similarities between the 2015 and 2018 incidents have spurred CSB to examine areas of improvement for the industry.

For more information, visit CSB’s investigation page for the Husky Energy Refinery explosion and fire. A PDF of the investigative update is available for download.