May 30, 2012 at 8:52 am
SARTELL, MN (KNSI)- The explosion that has turned into a now three-day fire is just the latest blow over a tough few months for the Verso Paper mill in Sartell. Now, even as firefighters work to put down the last embers of the blaze, the future of Sartell's cornerstone industry remains uncertain.
The tough stretch started last October when Verso shut down two of its three paper machines, meaning an instant loss of 40 percent of the workforce. But for Sartell Mayor Joe Perske, this fire could represent a crueler blow.
"Last fall when we learned that we were going to lose 175 jobs, that was devastating," Perske said. "But when I looked and I saw the plume coming from the factory yesterday, that just grabbed at my heart."
Just how serious a blow this fire will be won't be determined until the fire is totally extinguished and the damage fully assessed.
"To be honest with you we don't have a plan beyond today," plant manager Matt Archambeau said. "We have employees in the mill to help where needed. That's our plan right now."
When the time does come to form a long term plan, there could be various avenues of assistance for Verso Paper.
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton visited the facility and expressed his feelings that keeping the mill open is vitally important to not just Sartell, but the entire state. Dayton said he will push for various types of aide to keep the operation running.
"The priority right now is to get the plant operational as soon as possible, protect the operation, and protect all the jobs," Dayton said. "We will reach out to the company management nationally and offer the same assistance, whatever we can."
The more than a century old mill has seen generations of workers in the town that has grown up around it. Sartell city councilwoman Sarah Jane Nichol is a prime example of those generations of who have grown up in the shadow of the mill.
"It is a city of 15,000 but somehow the mill makes it that small town because everyone knows somebody that worked at the mill," Nichol said. "My father actually worked at the mill for over 30 years. My uncle currently works there, and so does my cousin."
Given those strong family and community ties, city leaders, including Mayor Perske, are going to make securing the future of the mill a top priority.
"You know those are families," Perske said. "I teach school, those are like my kids too. So I'm very concerned."
The fire is 95 percent contained as of Wednesday morning. Firefighters are dealing with extinguishing hundreds of multi-ton rolls of paper stored in the mill warehouse. The cause of the explosion is still undetermined.
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