IP not yet at ‘decision point’ on mill’s future|[05/17/08]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 17, 2008

International Paper officials were in a wait-and-see mode Friday, a day after the company announced unspecified job cuts in the wake of a May 3 explosion at the mill off Mississippi 3.

Staff cutbacks began Thursday, and some workers expected to be idled for about a week. Those employees with available vacation time have been advised to take it in order to keep up their incomes, said Memphis-based company spokesman Amy Sawyer. The mill employs 306 local workers, and the rest are contract employees.

As for what comes next, the company is aware workers “are anxious for that information,” Sawyer said, adding IP is not at “a decision point” on how business will progress during the coming weeks.

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Representatives of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security were on site Friday to assist workers in filing for unemployment benefits, said Benny Terrell, office manager of the department’s Vicksburg office.

In the explosion, two weeks ago today, one person was killed and 17 were injured. IP officials have said the blast occurred as workers attempted to restart a recovery boiler during an annual maintenance shutdown.

Robert and Kenneth Townsend, two contract maintenance workers with M-Co., were in critical condition at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., a hospital spokesman said Friday. They were among five people taken to the burn center.

Two others being treated at the Georgia facility have not been identified, but are believed to be contract workers. They were in critical condition, a hospital spokesman said Friday. Others with less severe burns were treated and released from River Region Medical Center.

Names of the injured workers have not been identified by IP, who has said they all worked for firms hired to perform scheduled maintenance. IP has also declined to identify its contractors.

A suit was filed against the company and several others Wednesday in Warren County Circuit Court on behalf of Glenn Rankin, 52. It alleges negligence on the part of company officials and those involved in the manufacture, distribution, installation, maintenance, repair or sale of the boiler that exploded.

Killed was Marcus Christopher Broome, 28, pronounced dead at the scene. About 400 people were at the mill at the time of the blast, all of which have been accounted for, the company has said.

Inspectors with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are looking into possible causes, with results expected in six months.

The financial impact of the explosion could not be immediately calculated, company officials said in a regulatory filing May 6. Business interruption and property damage insurance terms stipulate deductables and retention amounts totaling $20 million.

In 2006 and 2007, the company was issued Katrina-inspired Gulf Opportunity Zone bonds totaling $50 million for improvements to its physical plant, including the boilers.