Northrop grain elevator fire woes persist

FAIRMONT — Martin County commissioners on Tuesday heard from county Emergency Management director Abigail Nesbit regarding the LB Pork elevator explosion and fire event that occurred in Northrop on Dec. 28, 2017.

The event affected the city of Northrop, as well as area fire departments. Northrop faces a cost of $248,000, broken down to a fire bill of $114,000, Beemer’s knock-down bill of $118,000 and a $16,000 diesel fuel bill.

Also present was Mark Marcy, regional coordinator for Homeland Security and Emergency Management; Northrop Mayor Tom Wakey; and Lynn Becker and Diane Bettin of LB Pork.

“When an event happens, using the Granada tornado event as an example, the emergency manager looks at it and decides whether to declare a disaster with the approval of the board,” Nesbit said. “That is a pre-emptive action to take to cover any consulting work that we bring in or any public infrastructure damage so that we don’t have to take bids for people to come in.

“Once the board approves this and it’s gone up to the state, then HSEM comes down and collects paperwork and other things. Once approved by HSEM, then it comes back to the board and the board has to approve whether or not they’re going to officially request assistance. It then goes back up to the HSEM director, and he talks with Gov. Walz about providing assistance.

“What I’ve gathered that’s different about this elevator fire is that we missed a few steps with the board. An emergency declaration was declared, HSEM came down and collected invoices and met with the board, but it never came back to the board for approval for disaster assistance.

“It went straight up to [state] Rep. [Bob] Gunther’s office and [state] Sen. [Julie] Rosen. So we’re just missing the piece where you (the board) come in and approve to move forward asking for disaster assistance.”

Wakey said Northrop already declared an emergency, but Nesbit said the matter would still have to go through the county.

Marcy also explained the issue, noting that even going through the required steps would not necessarily solve the issue, because of the involvement of a private facility.

“In order to qualify for state disaster assistance, we do need to follow the process that Abby just walked you through,” he said. “What we need to know at HSEM is that the county declares an emergency in order to be eligible. All the steps have happened except for the county’s request for assistance.

“One of the issues is that because this happened at a private facility and there’s a responsible party, it’s likely not going to be eligible for state disaster reimbursement. Our staff has reviewed the expenses, and we’re not able to help in that process because it’s a private event.

“We also can’t release money for reimbursement until all avenues of recovery have been exhausted. Then we can go through the process. So I’m curious to know if the city of Northrop has tried to recover the funds from LB Pork.”

Wakey said that while Northrop officials have considered it, its city attorney has said it cannot be done.

“We can only go through the insurance company,” Wakey said. “We’ve gone through the insurance company and received $5,000 for two different fire calls. Our city attorney also said we can sue, but [LP Pork is a limited liability company], so even if we did win there would be no funds there.”

Wakey said it was not possible to get a loan, as Northrop simply cannot afford one.

Commissioner Richard Koons posed a question to LB Pork representatives, asking why their insurance company has denied payment via liability coverage.

“The insurance company is saying that since there was no negligence that liability coverage doesn’t cover it,” said Bettin. “So that’s their position, since the accident wasn’t due to any mistake by LB Pork and it was declared a freak accident by the state fire marshall and fire investigator, therefore we don’t have any liability that will kick in.”

Bettin said it would have been in the company’s best interest to let the building burn, but measures had to be taken to protect the community of Northrop. She also noted that LB Pork had considerable expenses itself.

County Attorney Terry Viesselman was present and offered his advice, stating that even though taking the necessary steps still will not resolve the issue, it will help to get things moving and up to Rep. Gunther’s office to look at other legislation for covering the loss.

“Ultimately, I think we should ask Northrop to send the bills, and then they can get a letter back from LB Pork saying they’re not responsible,” he said. “Then Northrop’s attorney can send a letter to the [county] board stating that they’ve exhausted reasonable efforts to collect. Then we can send our letter [to HSEM] and it will be denied, and then it will be up to Rep. Gunther.”

The board ultimately approved the suggestion, saying it would rely on Viesselman to send out a letter with his recommendations to Northrop.