When firefighters doused last year's asphalt fire at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior with water and foam, the runoff had to go somewhere.
Mostly, the mixture of water, oil and firefighting foam - made up of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS - went into several of the refinery's large wastewater ponds, where it sat for weeks until equipment that could remove PFAS was installed.
But on the day of the fire, some runoff slipped into Newton Creek. One year after the fire, traces of fire fighting foam are still being detected.
"To date, those water samples collected from Newton Creek post-incident are comparable to baseline samples collected prior to the incident under normal refinery operating conditions, with the exception of trace amounts of chemical components found in firefighting foam," Husky spokesperson Kim Guttormson said.
Newton Creek flows 1.5 miles from the refinery's wastewater treatment facility and empties into Superior Bay at Hog Island Inlet.
Related contentPerfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) levels recorded at the mouth of Newton Creek three days after the fire were 220 and 230 parts per trillion, respectively, and both had fallen below 10 parts per trillion by December 2018, according to data collected by Husky and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
While Newton Creek and Superior Bay are not sources for drinking water, tested amounts are well below the EPA's PFOA and PFOS health advisory level for drinking water at 70 parts per trillion.
According to the EPA, PFOA and PFOS can cause "adverse health effects," including developmental effects to fetuses and breastfed infants, cancer, liver effects, immune effects and thyroid effects.
But after the fire, Husky installed two systems of granular activated carbon filters, which captures those chemicals before the water enters Newton Creek.
Those seem to be working, according to John Sager, a hydrogeologist Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources overseeing the Husky cleanup.
"Once they set up the proper treatment at the wastewater treatment plant and began treating water, then any water was 'no detect' for any of these compounds," Sager said. "So, the treatment they used worked really well and it's been working ever since."
And soon the refinery's water will be sent through an extra layer of treatment.
Refinery will soon tie into city water treatment facility
Newton Creek, long impaired from decades of water released by the refinery before its modern wastewater treatment facilities were added, has undergone remediation work throughout the 1900s and 2000s. But problems persist. The Wisconsin DNR in 2017 said it was investigating "chemicals of concern" in the creek after discovering fish with deformities living there.
Even before last year's fire, city and state officials said the refinery and city were planning the tie in because the refinery would have faced tougher phosphorus requirements from the state when renewing its permit.
Earlier this month, Superior Mayor Jim Paine said the refinery tying into the city's water treatment facility meant a cleaner Newton Creek and added revenue for the city.
"We've never been able to detect any problem coming out of the refinery. There is some evidence that there's something wrong," Paine said. "There's fish with burned off fins at the mouth of Newton Creek, and the refinery is the only thing discharging into Newton Creek. So we want to get eyes on that water and make sure that it's meeting our standard, the DNR standard, the state standard."
Related contentAlthough the refinery is still discharging its treated water into Newton Creek, Refinery Manager Kollin Schade said that the company still plans to tie into the city's treatment facility.
"We are moving forward with that," Schade said. "When exactly we will start discharging to the city that timeline is not yet known."
Diane Nelson, stormwater and administrative manager for Superior's Environmental Services Division, said the city is ready to accept the refinery's pretreated wastewater by July 1, but it's up to the refinery to determine when it will make the switch.
"They're going to continue treating their wastewater as if they were still discharging to Newton Creek because their wastewater treatment system is designed to take out oils and greases and the byproducts of refining," "At the wastewater treatment plant in Superior, we're designed to take out more conventional pollutants. So even though we wouldn't necessarily require that they continue to run their (wastewater) plant, they are intending to do that. And it will end up being part of their permit requirements so that we're sure we're not going to get anything that's going to impact our plant negatively."
Besides added layers of treatment, Nelson said Superior's water treatment facility discharges into Superior Bay, which has far more water to mix with than Newton Creek.
"We're looking at this as a win-win for the environment," Nelson said. "Certainly I think Newton Creek is going to benefit from (Husky) discharging to us instead of the creek."