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Future of Verso paper mill in Minnesota unclear after fatal fire

Kimm Anderson | AP
Kimm Anderson | AP
Firefighters and emergency personnel gather as they fight a fire following an explosion Monday, May 28, 2012 at the Verso Paper Co. plant in Sartell, Minn. One person was killed and at least four others were injured in the explosion that caused a large fire at the paper mill.
The Associated Press

SARTELL, Minn. — The future of a Verso Paper Corp. mill that’s one of the main employers and taxpayers in the central Minnesota town of Sartell was unclear Tuesday as firefighters spent a second day trying to extinguish a fire that killed one worker and injured four.

The fire broke out Monday with an explosion in a warehouse at the Verso mill. The warehouse held nearly 4,000 rolls of paper, each weighing hundreds of pounds. Firefighters Tuesday still were trying to get to the burning rolls at the back of the building.

The building is unstable and structural beams are resting on top of paper rolls, Fire Chief Ken Heim said. “We have a massive challenge ahead of us,” Heim said during a news conference.

However, Heim also said he didn’t think the rest of the plant was damaged, the St. Cloud Times reported.

Plant manager Matt Archambeau said about 100 people were at work Tuesday, compared with 150 for a normal weekday and 50 when the fire broke out on the Memorial Day holiday. He said he didn’t know what the future holds for them, and the company is taking it day by day.

“We don’t have a plan beyond today,” he said.

Bill Cohen, a spokesperson for Verso mills in Bucksport and Jay, Maine, said Thursday, the company was still talking with customers and assessing the situation to make sure it can meet the clients’ needs.

Cohen said that process is just beginning, though, so it was too early to say whether the Maine mills might be asked to pick up some of the workload for the Sartell facility.

The sprawling blue mill is a landmark along the east bank of the Mississippi River in Sartell, a community of about 16,000 people just north of St. Cloud. The mill’s smokestack can be spotted for miles. It has been producing paper for 105 years, about as long as Sartell has been a city.

It’s a top employer and the city’s highest property taxpayer.

But Memphis, Tenn.-based Verso Paper has been hurt by the economic slump and a declining market for some of its products, including newsprint.

The company laid off 175 plant employees and mothballed two of its three paper-making machines late last year. The remaining machine makes lightweight coated paper, accounting for about two-thirds of the plant’s annual business. The paper is used mainly in media and marketing, including magazines and catalogs.

“When something happens to the mill, it affects the whole city,” Mayor Joe Perske said.

Verso’s chief financial officer, Robert Mundy, told the Times it’s fortunate that there was a “significant firewall” between the machine and the warehouse.

“The first thing we’ll have to do is get in and assess the damage, but we don’t know when that will be,” he said. “If it’s limited to the warehouse, we should be able to bring back operations in a reasonable amount of time.”

The plant is so important to the area that Gov. Mark Dayton visited the site Tuesday.

“The state of Minnesota will do everything it possibly can to get this plant operating again as soon as possible and protect the jobs that are here and vitally important to Sartell and the area,” Dayton said. “The fact that [Verso] is in some difficulty right now is of concern to me.”

Dayton said the company and its employees are only in the initial stages of assessing their needs, and that financial assistance might be in order.

Minnesota OSHA opened an investigation into the fire Tuesday. OSHA considers any accident resulting in three or more injuries or a fatality to be a catastrophe.

The fire killed Jon Michael Maus, 50, of Albany. He is survived by his wife, Lucy, and four children.

The number of people injured in the blaze was reduced to four Tuesday because one person refused treatment, Archambeau said. The four were treated and released from St. Cloud Hospital.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation Tuesday. Heim said there were “possible indications” of an air compressor explosion.

The fire chief said he hoped crews could get inside the building and start removing paper rolls Tuesday. The plan was to take the rolls and submerge them in large trash bins filled with water, he said.

BDN writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

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