On April 26th, 2018, a massive plume of black smoke exploded into the sky above Superior, Wisconsin. When Ginger Juel saw the ominous black cloud from her Duluth, Minnesota home across the water, and she immediately knew that something was wrong. However, when she turned on the news to see what was going on, there were no reports of any black smoke. Being a lifetime Twin Ports (Duluth, MN and Superior, WI) resident, she was especially concerned because she knew the smoke was billowing from Husky Refinery, and she knew that all five K-12 schools in Superior were located within 1-2 miles of the refinery.
So when the news failed to provide any information on the potential disaster, Juel turned to social media. As she began to comb through tweets about the area, she noticed that there was a Facebook live stream of the plume, warning people it was coming from the refinery. Even more alarming, the wife of a refinery worker had tweeted that there had been a fire at the refinery and all of the workers had been evacuated. Her husband had come home to tell her to pack up their kids and leave town.
Growing increasingly worried, Juel called her family members and advised that they leave town before preparing to leave the area herself. Her family was hesitant, because there were still no official evacuation orders from the city. They assumed that if there was any real danger, they would have heard about it, and that it would be okay.
As Juel learned later, Twin Ports was extremely lucky on April 26th. The tanks that exploded and caused the smoke plume on April 26th were a mere 200 feet from the tanks that contain Hydrogen Fluoride (HF), which is an incredibly dangerous compound that’s lethal even in small doses. Had the fires reached the tanks containing HF on April 26th, the death toll in Twin Ports could have been staggering— potentially upwards of 100,000.
Despite the immense danger posed by any fire or explosion at a refinery containing HF, Juel recounts an overall lack of leadership from local law enforcement and government in regards to the action. An official evacuation wasn’t ordered until 1:00 pm, even though the fires had been burning since the morning, and there weren’t clear instructions given on when it was safe for residents to return. Many returned early only to suffer from nosebleeds and headaches, and to notice that the air smelled strange. Juel remembers that a tweet she sent warning residents not to drink the water got over 10,000 retweets by Twin Ports residents. People were desperate for information, and official sources were not providing it.
Juel recalls spending the entire night of April 26th unable to sleep after the ordeal. The next morning, she had the conviction that she had to do something to ensure this never happened again.
When the ordeal began, Juel had already been wetting her toes in the world of activism. She first got involved with activism through attending a pipeline protest, and since then made sure to stay involved in issues in her community. However, she had never taken on leadership for a protest, let alone an entire community’s environmental justice movement. Before the explosion, she was planning on starting an organic mushroom farm, but the toxic fumes from the refinery ruined her chances of having a successful first crop.
“I always knew that I wanted to start a nonprofit, but I always assumed it would be about gardening or something,” Juel said. “I just kept thinking: if I don’t do this, who else will?”
So she began leading the charge to get HF banned from the Husky Refinery. She formed the nonprofit organization TPAA, or Twin Ports Action Alliance, who have been working tirelessly ever since. Some successes of TPAA include polling of residents regarding their opinions on HF, email campaigns to local legislators and a successful Chemical Safety Board (CSB) hearing resulting in the CSB calling for the EPA to investigate the use of HF at refineries across the United States.
After one year of hard work, Juel says she’s most proud of how her work has allowed the Twin Ports community to unite in raising awareness of the dangers of HF.
“I’m most proud of the relationships this community has built with each other. This group [of people fighting against HF] hasn’t existed before in a genuine way,” Juel said.