Judge signs order allowing IP to repair boiler|[06/19/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Warren County judge has signed an order that will allow International Paper’s Vicksburg Mill to repair its recovery boiler that exploded nearly seven weeks ago, killing one person and injuring 17 others.

However, no definitive timeline for the repairs has been set, an IP spokesman said.

The order was signed a week ago by Warren County Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick, but not made public until Wednesday.

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In the order and in IP’s motion for permission to repair the boiler, which was filed June 6, the local economy was listed as the primary concern in not delaying the boiler’s repairs.

“The shutdown of IP’s Vicksburg Mill has had and continues to have a significant impact on the Warren County economy and many of its citizens,” the order stated. “Some 200 hourly employees have been laid off until the mill can resume operations, and local logging operations have also been adversely affected. The mill cannot resume operations until the recovery boiler has been repaired.”

The signed order further stated that IP is “granted leave to begin the process of repairing the recovery boiler … immediately upon release of the boiler by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” which is still doing inspections at the mill on Mississippi 3 near Redwood.

IP spokesman Amy Sawyer said this morning there is no timeline for the repairs, but said IP wants to have the boiler up and running as soon as possible.

“We want the mill fully operating and we want to send our employees back to work.”

With about 200 of their 306 employees currently laid off, Sawyer said the employees still at work are doing routine safety and security checks.

The judge’s signing of the order is part of the recent activity in a lawsuit filed against IP on behalf of 52-year-old Glen Rankin of Claiborne County, who was one of the 17 injured in the blast. According to the complaint filed May 14 by Rankin’s attorney, Robert F. Wilkins, Rankin was a contract employee who was slammed backward into a wall when the boiler exploded May 3. The recovery boiler had been taken off-line for routine service, maintenance and repairs as Rankin and others performed their work. On the night of the blast, Rankin was treated and released from River Region Medical Center.

The suit says IP was negligent in events leading to the explosion and seeks $1 million and punitive damages.

In a response filed Monday, IP denied all accusations of negligence, saying that Rankin “may have failed to exercise reasonable care for his own safety at and immediately prior to the time of the occurrence of his injury,” and that he “is barred from recovering any damages that could have been avoided by mitigation.”

A second lawsuit against IP was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. It was filed by attorney William M. Quin of Jackson, who is representing brothers Robert T. “Terry” and Kenneth Townsend, industrial insulators employed by M-Co Inc. who also were working on the exterior of the boiler at the time of the explosion. Both remain in critical condition in Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga.

As in Rankin’s suit, the Townsends’ complaint claims IP was negligent. Their suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Two other people injured in the explosion, whose names have not been released, also remain at the Georgia hospital, one in critical condition and one listed as serious, a hospital spokesman said this morning.

Killed in the explosion was 28-year-old Marcus Christopher Broome, who had a wife and twin 4-year-old daughters. Like the Townsends, Broome was an industrial insulator with M-Co. Inc.

About 400 people, including IP’s 306 regular employees, were at the mill when the boiler exploded.

The IP explosion came about two weeks before the sixth anniversary of a deadly blast at the Rouse Polymerics plant on U.S. 61 South. Five people were killed and seven were injured.