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Superior shipyard faces more lawsuits

Boilermakers take apart the old boiler in the freighter Herbert C. Jackson at Fraser Shipyards in Superior in February 2016. News Tribune file photo

Forty-three Fraser Shipyards workers filed lawsuits Wednesday in federal court as fallout continues from the 2016 lead poisoning of scores of workers during the shipyard's repowering of the freighter Herbert C. Jackson.

The three lawsuits covering the 43 workers, filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, allege that as Fraser prepared to change out steam engines for diesel power in the 57-year-old vessel, business managers within Capstan Corp. — the Duluth-based holding company that owns Fraser Shipyards — "quashed" lead abatement efforts "because of the added costs and potential for delay, which would result in payment penalties."

The ship's owner, the Ohio-based Interlake Steamship Company, also is being pursued in the latest lawsuits.

"The defendants have made it clear since this happened that they have no intention of accepting responsibility for what they did to these workers and their families," said Matthew Sims of the Chicago-based Rapoport Law Offices in a news release announcing the lawsuits. "The courts are the only avenue left for them to seek justice, and we intend to deliver it for them."

The new lawsuits join one filed by 48-year-old James Holder, a welder and ship fabricator, who first sought damages in May 2016 for exposure to toxic levels of lead. That suit also was filed in Madison through Rapoport Law Offices.

The additional lawsuits are seeking an unspecified amount of both compensatory and punitive damages.

Fraser President and CEO James Farkas issued a statement on Wednesday that said the company had not yet had a chance to review the lawsuits and would not comment.

Interlake President Mark W. Barker said, "It's an ongoing situation. We're working through it and will continue to address it as needed."

Fraser, a 127-year-old fixture in Superior, has been the subject of a pair of investigation settlements with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration this year — one related to the lead poisoning and another to the death of Joseph Burch, a welder who was burned in a separate incident earlier this year and later died due to complications from his injuries.

In January, Fraser agreed to pay a $700,000 fine and develop a new safety plan in exchange for not having to admit fault or liability for violations — including the lead poisoning — alleged to have taken place during its repowering of Herbert C. Jackson. In April, the company agreed to pay a $7,530 fine, while again not being subject to a finding of wrongdoing in connection with Burch's death.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

Safety concerns follow Fraser: Documents in worker's death reveal a reactive workplace

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The repowering of the freighter Herbert C. Jackson was a landmark job for Fraser — the first repowering at the shipyard since the 1980s. Just weeks into the job it was abruptly halted after workers began to fall ill and the company's lead-abatement practices scrutinized. Wisconsin Public Radio later reported that 171 of 233 workers on the site had tested positive for lead exposure.

In August 2016 — prior to the settlements — while announcing its findings from its lead exposure investigation, OSHA issued a strongly-worded news release in which Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the agency, claimed that Fraser had "accepted a contract with a very low profit margin and penalties for delayed completion, but could not meet the schedule without endangering its workers. This employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure."

Fraser disputed those allegations. Farkas, in a statement in August 2016, said: "We take the health and safety of our people and our community seriously. We acted to protect our people as soon as we learned of the problems. ... We strongly disagree with OSHA's statement that any of the issues were caused or worsened by business or profit motivations."

The lawsuits filed Wednesday cite the OSHA investigation but also include new findings from the law firm.

"The evidence we have gathered will show that the defendants made a conscious decision to prioritize profits over safety by taking away funds specifically allocated for lead abatement," one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Melanie VanOverloop, said in the news release. "We now know that safety professionals told the defendants time and again that if the proper safety measures for lead were not put in place, workers would be poisoned. They knew this before any worker stepped foot on the Herbert C. Jackson and they let the workers get poisoned anyway."

The lawsuits also allege that Fraser and Capstan eschewed a specialized 275-ton crane, "which they believed was too expensive," needed to safely lift each of the two new diesel engines for the Herbert C. Jackson. "In order to save money," the lawsuits contend Fraser attempted to use "a light-duty crane without properly trained personnel." During the attempted lift, the steel cables "failed and (an) engine fell to the ground." Nobody was injured in the incident, which the lawsuit called a "near-miss event."

In addition to owning Fraser, Capstan owns another business cited in the lawsuits, Northern Engineering Co., as well as Lake Assault Boats and Viant Crane.

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