Early in May, I was driving on Tower Avenue, my hometown’s main thoroughfare, when a surge of alarm hit.

I’d been having trouble with my Camry and a foul odour had just permeated the car. Oh, this is bad, I thought.

But my alarm quickly changed to chagrin. I was all too familiar with that sulfurous, rotten-egg smell to be confused for long.

Five years after an explosion at a Husky Oil refinery — an accident that injured 36 and forced the evacuation of 2,500 residents of Superior, Wis. — production has resumed. Add to that a new 625-megawatt, natural gas plant slated for construction in 2025, and I live in a city that hardly seems to be at the tail end of the fossil fuel era. If anything, it feels like it’s just the beginning.

Sure, we still need oil and gas — in fact, the Dairyland Power Cooperative says the proposed gas plant will be used to phase out coal plants, a dirtier energy source.

But the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have called it a myth that these plants are needed at all and say they are reckless in the face of climate change. Another recent energy report warned that gas plants could hinder the transition to renewable energy sources, providing short-term benefits at the cost of long-term climate change if policies encouraging transition aren’t put into place.

The Husky Oil refinery in Superior, now owned by Cenovus, is the endpoint for Line 3, a contentious pipeline that transports crude oil from Canada. Construction of the expanded pipeline finished in 2021 and it is expected to add up to 193 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere per year — or the equivalent of 38 million new cars on the road.

And remember that foul odour in my car? Oil refineries also release a number of toxic chemicals, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

Some of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, reproductive problems and childhood asthma.

@LLWohlwend's community in the United States offers a precautionary tale about what happens when an oil refinery is allowed to expand.

All of this comes on the heels of a summer where one-third of the United States’ population has seen heat domes and dangerously high temperatures. We’ve reached the highest average global temperatures ever recorded on Earth and yet, here we are, doing business as usual. Again.

Lynn Wohlwend grew up in Superior, Wis., less than two miles from an oil refinery. Photo submitted

My hometown is primed to become yet another sacrifice town. As Meghan Krausch explained in The Progressive, it’s a place that wealthier towns and cities benefit from while the less well-off locals deal with the unwanted pollution from fossil fuel industries.

That these sacrifices are mostly located in poor areas across the United States with people of colour is no accident. There are fewer resources to fight back.

But, truthfully, I’m not even sure if residents in Superior want to fight back.

Superior votes reliably blue, with a largely white, working-class demographic. But during Line 3 construction, while Indigenous communities fought hard against the expansion, I spotted more yard signs in support of Line 3 than any protesting it in the area.

The refinery has been the city’s backdrop for decades.

Growing up, my sister and I would be playing in the yard when we’d feel the wind change, and, with it, a heavy stink would roll in like the fog instead of a fresh deep lake wind.

We’d run around closing windows on really bad days, hoping to shut out the smell but inevitably, it would seep into the rooms. We never questioned whether this should be happening at all.

After the explosion, more people started publicly questioning the risks.

Residents attended meetings about the refinery’s safety and some pushed for shutting it down, a fact that left me temporarily hopeful. I’d always assumed people thought the refinery was worth it because of the approximate 200 local jobs and $1.6 million in tax revenue.

But it’s one thing to benefit from the taxes, and quite another to realize you live in the “kill zone,” or the area where people would not have time to evacuate from a leak of hydrofluoric acid, the chemical of greatest concern.

It’s a fact I know now all too well.

My mother’s house is less than two miles from the oil refinery. On April 26, 2018, she was outside doing some early spring gardening when she heard the boom. A neighbour passed by and together they wondered if something had happened at the refinery. But shortly after, the neighbour continued her walk and my mother went back to her yardwork unaware of the drama unfolding nearby.

During what was supposed to be routine maintenance at the refinery, two vessels in the fluid catalytic cracking unit exploded, “propelling over 100 metal fragments, some several feet long, up to 1,200 feet.” One of those fragments punctured an asphalt tank, releasing 17,000 pounds of asphalt and igniting multiple fires.

The bigger issue, however, was the nearby hydrofluoric acid tank. Hydrofluoric acid can cause death from irregular heartbeat or fluid buildup in the lungs. It was pure luck the metal fragments missed the tank.

When I drive past the refinery these days, I try not to focus on it, playing a childish version of What you don’t see, can’t get you, right? But it’s impossible not to notice the stench when the breeze lingers too long in the wrong direction.

I was right about one thing on my drive in May: Yup, this is bad.

Lynn Wohlwend grew up in Superior, Wis., less than two miles from the oil refinery. She’s an assistant professor in writing at the University of Minnesota Duluth.