Chemical company works on settlement

Andrew Tellijohn

Hawkins Chemical Inc. has reached a tentative agreement to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by those who claimed they were harmed during a fire at their chemical plant.
The fire, which sent smoke and chemical fumes into the air, burned between Feb. 25-27, 1995 and caused a temporary evacuation of area residences. The fire sent more than 200 different chemicals into the air, and caused some residents missed work and medical expenses.
“At least 120,000 pounds and reasonably as much as 150,000-200,000 pounds” of chlorine might have been released into the atmosphere either in molecular form or as part of another compound formed by a chemical reaction, according to toxicology test reports performed by the Cambridge Toxicology Group.
About 90 people filed claims against the company that is located at 3100 Hennepin Ave. E.
“A settlement is always better than the uncertainty of winning or losing. The people that are injured don’t have to prove all that they have to prove if they go into a court of law,” said Charles Zimmerman, counsel for the plaintiff in the class action suit.
“It was hotly contested whether or not there were chemicals emitted … that could cause injury to anyone,” Zimmerman said. “It was not a slam dunk on that issue at all.”
Hennepin County Officials still must accept the terms of the agreement, but Hawkins’ attorney Stuart Williams said it probably will be accepted.
Hawkins distributes products and equipment to the water treatment, electronics, electroplating, pharmaceutical and food additives industries.
Under terms of the agreement, the company will pay the Southeast Como Improvement Association and the Como Student Community Cooperative a total of $85,000 for damages and inconveniences incurred from the fire.
The cooperative offers family housing to more than 360 University students.
Dean Hahn, Hawkins’ chief executive officer, had no comment on the incident. However, Williams said the settlement was spurred by a desire to move on from the incident.
Williams said officials from Hawkins don’t believe they were at fault but agreed to settle.
“The purpose of the settlement is to avoid finger-pointing at all,” he said. “We obviously had a fire, we’re very sorry that it happened. We’ve been in the neighborhood for 50 years and we’re a responsible member of the community.”
Not everyone feels a settlement is the answer. Walt Dziedzic, former city councilman of the area where the fire occurred, said he felt the class action suit wasn’t the answer. He said he felt the company had taken care of the problem after a second fire, which happened in December of 1996.
“There’s a place for class action,” Dziedzic said. “But I’m not sure this is it.”
However, Williams said, “It’s our effort to try and rebuild and maintain our relationship with the community.”
Jerry Erickson, the cooperative’s general manager, said the terms seem fair to him. He said the portion of the settlement they receive could be used for turning a room into a library or buying playground equipment for those living in the community.
“It seems reasonable to me,” he said. “I don’t know that anyone was physically harmed here, but there certainly was disruption where people had to leave (their apartment) for awhile.”
Individuals affected by the chemicals released into the atmosphere can also file claims for up to $2,500 based on a matrix compensation scale.
Claimants have until Feb. 19 to file for a sum. Those that do will have their individual amount determined by a payment matrix which will take into account complainants’ symptoms.
Those not satisfied with the amount of their settlement agreement can take their complaint to an arbitration hearing. In arbitration, awards are limited to $25,000 for claims of non-permanent injury and $75,000 for claims of permanent injury.
A fairness hearing has been scheduled in Hennepin County Court for Jan. 30, during which the court will consider citizens’ complaints and the agreement’s approval.
Residents in the area can still file claims until Feb. 19 by contacting Zimmerman and Reed for a claim form or stopping by the Hawkins Claim Office set up for the settlement.
“If they were in the neighborhood, they should file a claim, because they are entitled to compensation,” Zimmerman said.