Lawsuit claims faulty valve caused Catawba plant explosion that burned four

adys@heraldonline.comMay 18, 2013 

The companies that built and distributed the valve that burst and injured four workers at a paper mill in York County in May 2012 were negligent because the valve was defective and “unreasonably dangerous,” lawsuits filed by three of the burn victims allege.

Flowrox Inc., the company that built the valve, distributor WACCO Inc. both deny all claims made against them by Resolute Forest Products employees Wayne Vinson, Mitch Altman and Mark Harrington.

The lawsuits seek damages for the loss of ability to work, pain and suffering from the burns and disfigurement, and allegations of product liability malfeasance and negligence.

Vinson and Altman spent weeks at burn centers and required extensive surgeries. Vinson, who was burned over two-thirds of his body, was blinded. Altman was burned over 30 percent of his body, and Harrington was burned on 7 percent of his body.

The lawsuits allege the valve failed May 19, 2012, at the Resolute plant, causing sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide chemicals to spray on the victims. The chemical, known as “white liquor,” breaks down paper mulch. The plant in Catawba in eastern York County along the Catawba River was called Bowater, then AbitibiBowater, for years before the company’s name was changed to Resolute Forest Products.

State investigators blamed the equipment for the incident. A report by the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation after a months-long investigation found that “the valve sleeve inside the pinch valve failed.”

A review of the incident showed both design and manufacturing flaws, according to a scientist hired by the labor department.

A bushing required to retain the caustic chemicals within the valve became dislodged because of a failed internal sleeve, the lawsuit alleges.

Resolute was not cited by state and federal regulators and is not named in the lawsuits. Both Flowrox and WACCO claim in court documents that Resolute and its employees knew the risks associated with the work being done.

The nine valves involved with the white liquor process had been used since 2010, the lawsuit claims, and were bought by Resolute after both Flowrox and WACCO recommended that type of pinch valve as appropriate for chemical use in the paper mill.

However, alternative designs for the valve were safer for use in the chemical line and would have “prevented or significantly reduced” the injuries caused by the spray, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawyer for WACCO, J. Kenneth Carter Jr. of Columbia, said all information from the incident is not yet known, and the investigation is not complete.

“There is not any indication of negligence” on WACCO’s part, he said.

In court documents, Flowrox denied wrongdoing and that the valve was defective. Flowrox’ lawyer, Ron Wray of Greenville, reiterated the company’s position in court documents denying the claims, but declined further comment.

The valve rupture incident was not the only one in the past year involving injuries from “white liquor” at the plant. In June 2012, a contractor delivering the same chemical that burned Vinson was splashed.

In January, a contractor cleaning a tank at Resolute died from hydrogen sulfide intoxication, according to the autopsy results released by the York County coroner.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065

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