Dayton pledges support to burned Sartell paper millby Conrad Wilson, Minnesota Public Radio
SARTELL, Minn. — Gov. Mark Dayton toured a central Minnesota paper mill Tuesday that was the site of a deadly fire Monday.
The governor pledged the state's support to help get the Verso Paper Corporation plant back up and running.
"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.
Dayton's visit to Sartell followed release of the identity of the plant worker who was killed in the fire. Officials say Jon Maus from Albany, Minn. died in the fire. There was no additional information released about him, but community members say Maus was a husband and a father of four.
Four other workers were injured in the fire.
The mill is currently offline as the damage is assessed. The fire burned a warehouse that holds large rolls of paper. Fire Chief Ken Heim says the material is difficult to work with.
"The challenge you have with a paper roll is they're wound so tight. And as the first layer burns off it ignites ... it's very challenging to put out," Heim said.
Heim said the fire didn't occur in the manufacturing parts of the plant. Some reports say the fire started after an air compressor exploded, but Heim couldn't confirm that and said their investigation has only just begun.
Smoke and the pungent smell of burned material hung in the air near the plant, as crews continued to douse the warehouse with water.
The century-old paper mill sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, and is one year older than the town of Sartell itself.
A POWER IN THE COMMUNITY
The fire comes at a difficult time for both the mill and the paper industry. In December the Verso mill laid off 175 workers. There are still more than 250 people employed at the plant and they, along with many people in town, wonder what's next for the mill.
"They were our second-largest employer," said Sartell City Manager Patti Gartland. "They were and continue to be our largest tax-paying property owner. So they have a very significant economic, social and cultural role in our community."
Company officials say they would not talk about what the fire means for the plant's future. The mill's manager would only confirm there was significant damage to the facility.
Some Sartell families have had multiple generations working at the Verso mill. Cindy Stang lives just across the road from the mill and said the place has a lot of history for her.
"My dad worked there, my brother, all my cousins, uncles, many, many people that I know," she said.
Stang said it's hard to see the fire hurt a mill and an industry that's already struggling.
"We all know it's not a paper society any more," Stang said.
PAPER INDUSTRY STRUGGLING
Industry observers agree it's been a challenging road for the paper industry in recent years.
Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, said more recent investments by companies in mills in Minnesota have kept the lights on — especially compared to more wide-spread closings in other parts of the country.
"We've been able to continue running with the mills here while others have been shut down," Brandt said. "Profitability has been marginal for most of the mills."
Brandt said it's still too early to know what the temporary shutdown in Sartell might mean for the other four paper mills in the state.
About 100 employees showed up for work today at the Verso mill to help out where they could.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
- All Things Considered, 05/29/2012, 5:20 p.m.