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Class action complaint filed against Husky Energy

People evacuate the area after a second major fire started during a series of fires and explosions at the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior, Wis., on April 26. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

SUPERIOR, Wis. — A class action complaint was filed against Husky Energy and Superior Refining Company in response to the April 26 explosion and fire at their Superior refinery, which prompted the evacuation of most of Superior.

In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin on Aug. 20, Jasen Bruzek, Hope Koplin and Neil Miller argue Husky displayed negligence, nuisance, trespass on land and strict liability — extrahazardous and/or ultrahazardous activity before, during and after the fire and evacuation.

According to the complaint, "Defendants failed to exercise due care in the maintenance and monitoring of the Husky Superior Refinery so as to prevent fires, explosions, and the uncontrolled release of hazardous substance, odors, and wastes into the environment."

The complaint cites the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's Aug. 2 factual update that found a worn-out valve may allow air to mix with hydrocarbons within the fluid catalytic cracking unit, or FCC, then come in contact with iron sulfide deposits, which can spontaneously ignite if in contact with air. Since the evacuation zone was based on the worst-case scenario — the release of hydrogen fluoride, a highly dangerous chemical used in the refining process — the complaint cites the Center for Public Integrity in claiming that up to 180,000 people could have been killed or injured if the hydrogen fluoride was released.

No hydrogen fluoride was released.

The Husky refinery in Superior can store nearly 78,000 pounds of the chemical, according to EPA records. At the time of the April fire, the refinery said there were 15,000 pounds on site. If exposed to the atmosphere, hydrogen fluoride travels quickly in a cloud and can cause burning and respiratory problems. The chemical can be fatal in high concentrations.

While Husky allowed evacuees to file claims for evacuation expenses — transportation, lodging and lost wages — as well as separate claims for bodily harm, the complaint argues "the claim reimbursement process has skewed towards reimbursing only certain segments of the affected population," such as those who could afford the up-front costs of a hotel room.

That was the case for plaintiff Neil Miller, who couldn't afford a hotel and spent the night in Canal Park with his family, according to the complaint.

The complaint also claims that while Husky has accepted some claims for reimbursement, the company has failed to make reimbursement payments for "many more residents."

In an email Friday, Aug. 31, Husky Energy Media Relations Coordinator Kim Guttormson said nearly all of the claims received by Husky have been closed.

"Since the April 26 fire, we have been working to resolve any related claims, including those for accommodation, food and lost wages," she said. "To date, more than 95 percent of the claims presented to us have been successfully closed and we continue to address the others."

The complaint claims the evacuation led to the death of plaintiff Hope Koplin's mother, who was in hospice care, had to be evacuated, then died on May 3.

According to the complaint, "Even though she was eating and talking prior to the evacuation, upon her return home; she was no longer eating or talking and her health quickly deteriorated. A few days later, Koplin's mother passed away."

Plaintiff Jasen Bruzek had to evacuate his family and dog during the fire, but managed to find a place to stay for free. However, since his children's school canceled class April 27, the day after the fire, his wife couldn't go to work and lost wages, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs are requesting an unspecified amount for damages.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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