Wisconsin 8 reach $16M settlement in explosion Workers suffered severe burns

By Dinesh Ramde

Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Eight people who were hurt in a 2009 explosion at a Milwaukee-area power plant reached a $16 million settlement with the utility and one of its contractors, the victims' attorney said Thursday.

Four people had suffered second- and third-degree burns, and one man was hurt so badly that his own father didn't recognize him when he carried his son from the wreckage, attorney Timothy S. Trecek said.

"Many of these people have ongoing permanent injuries," Trecek told The Associated Press. "Some of these guys said they thought they were going to burn to death."

The announcement came on the two-year anniversary of the explosion, which occurred at a coal-fired power plant in suburban Milwaukee. A silo exploded into flames, burning some workers who were inside and blasting others against a wall.

Trecek said one worker lost part of an ear and suffered permanent scarring on his face, while another suffered third-degree burns from his crotch to his ankles.

"Twenty years ago I don't know if he would have made it," Trecek said of the second man, "but with the advances in medical care (doctors) did a wonderful job." The man is able to walk, he said.

The accident happened at a We Energies plant in Oak Creek, about 20 miles south of Milwaukee. Within about two weeks the eight people filed a civil lawsuit against Wisconsin Electric Power Co., the utility's business entity, and contractor U.S. Fire Protection Inc., which was overseeing the silo work.

We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey confirmed the legal settlement and amount to AP. He said the utility, contractors and their insurance companies would now work among themselves to determine how to assign responsibility.

"We did not cause and were not responsible for the accident and plaintiffs' injuries," Manthey said.

A message left with U.S. Fire Protection on Thursday was not immediately returned.

The silo was a dust collector where coal dust, left over after coal is dumped from rail cars, is stored for eventual burning. The workers were erecting scaffolding inside so other contractors could repair the fire-suppression system inside the silo, Trecek said.

He said We Energies and U.S. Fire Protection were responsible for cleaning out the coal dust before the workers were allowed inside. Instead, he said, airborne dust landed on a boiler light and sparked the explosion and resulting fire.

At the least, the utility and contractor should have given the workers sufficient warning about the dangers so they could have used explosion-proof lighting and taken other precautions, Trecek said.

When asked whether the workers could have used their own common sense to avoid a possibly dangerous situation, Trecek said they weren't the ones with detailed knowledge of the dangers.

"These guys were just thinking it was another dirty job, that their washing machines were going to be working overdrive," he said. "They didn't know it was dangerous."

The We Energies plant, located along Lake Michigan, burns about 7,000 tons of coal per day. It provides electricity for more than 1.1 million customers in Wisconsin and Michigan and supplies natural gas to more than 1 million customers in Wisconsin.

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde@ap.org

Published: Fri, Feb 4, 2011

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