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Welder sues Fraser Shipyards over alleged lead poisoning

Boilermakers take apart the old boiler in the freighter Herbert C. Jackson in Superior's Fraser Shipyards to make room for a new engine on Feb. 12. The ship is being converted to a diesel propulsion system. Bob King /

The first of what could be multiple lawsuits against Superior-based Fraser Shipyards was filed in U.S. District Court in Madison on Wednesday.

James Holder, a 48-year-old welder and ship fabricator, is seeking damages in excess of $75,000 for what the lawsuit claims was exposure to toxic levels of lead while performing work on the lake freighter Herbert C. Jackson at Fraser earlier this year.

"We have other clients who have suffered lead poisoning," said attorney Matthew Sims, who is representing Holder for the Chicago-based Rapoport Law Offices. "We anticipate additional lawsuits will be filed in this matter with respect to our clients who suffered lead poisoning aboard the Herbert C. Jackson."

The lawsuit said Holder worked on the repowering of the Jackson, a freighter owned by the Ohio-based Interlake Steamship Company, which is also named in the lawsuit along with Northern Engineering Company — a subsidiary, along with Fraser Shipyards, of the Duluth-based Capstan Corporation.

Holder was working on the Jackson while employed by a subcontractor, Tradesmen International, which is not a party to the lawsuit.

Work on the Jackson was halted temporarily this spring, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began investigating complaints from workers in February. The OSHA case remains open, the U.S. Department of Labor reported on its website.

At the time OSHA announced its inspection, Fraser President James Farkas confirmed the existence of lead paint on "some recent work areas and surfaces." Work stopped temporarily while Fraser sought to remove lead paint. The Jackson was being retrofitted with twin diesel engines, but not before the old steam engines were dismantled and removed at the yard located on St. Louis Bay in Superior.

Farkas did not reply to the News Tribune when contacted Wednesday about the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Holder performed duties for several weeks that included "cutting out old steel with a torch, which involved burning through paint." He claims he was in close proximity to fumes and airborne particles.

"The defendants knew or should have known these workers were being exposed to the hazards of occupational diseases," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also states that in 1993, Fraser was cited by OSHA for several dozen safety violations "when it failed to protect workers at its yard from exposure to toxic levels of lead."

The lawsuit claims that workers earlier this year complained to the defendants about working conditions and "unusual health ailments" affecting workers on the Jackson, but "the defendants and their agents ignored these complaints, failed to investigate the widespread sickness, and instead falsely assured the workers, including the plaintiff, there was nothing to be concerned about."

Farkas responded to the OSHA inspection at the time by saying that all exposed workers would have their blood tested for lead and be monitored accordingly afterward. Additionally, Farkas said the company would apply preventative actions, including remediation of paint and improved ventilation in the engine room of the 57-year-old ship.

Holder was later diagnosed with lead poisoning, the lawsuit states. Sims said he is back to work on a limited basis in his native state of Virginia.

"Mr. Holder suffered terrible joint pain, illness, decreased cognition, problems with his nervous system and gastrointestinal issues," Sims said. "Basically, the way it's been described to me is it feels like you're dying."

The News Tribune has written extensively about the repowering of the Jackson, including touring the work prior to it being shut down in February. In late March, while addressing the start of the Great Lakes shipping campaign, Interlake Steamship President Mark Barker was asked by the News Tribune about his company's choice of Fraser Shipyards to do the repowering work — the first of its kind at Fraser in many years.

"It's a risk going to a yard that hasn't repowered a boat in 30 years or more," Barker said at the time. "But at the same time if you don't put some of that risk out there and let them do it, how are they going to get better? It's important for us as partners in the industry to grow and develop together. They're doing a nice job, but there are definitely some learning curves."

Fraser celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2015. But until millions of dollars in upgrades in recent years it had mostly become an outpost for maintenance and repair work. As it aged, Fraser had been surpassed by other shipyards for major projects, such as a repowering, until receiving the Herbert C. Jackson project.

Fraser and the other defendants have 21 days to respond to Holder's lawsuit.