170 employees notified of indefinite layoff from Mueller Copper Tube Products

Karen Draper via The Loop
Karen Draper via The Loop

WYNNE, AR (KAIT) – Officials in the city of Wynne told Region 8 News Wednesday the state of Arkansas has approached the Wynne Chamber of Commerce to offer their support in keeping operations of a local plant in Cross County.

Tuesday evening, a large fire broke out in one of three buildings at Mueller Copper Tube Products, located in the heart of the city's industrial park. According to Wynne Mayor Bob Stacy, 176 individuals who are employed in the plastics division have been told they'll be laid off indefinitely due to the fire.

"The company talks real favorable. There will be 175-176 people laid off. I hear it to be rehired later. That's not a guarantee of anything, but it makes me feel real good," said Stacy, who remained optimistic the company will rebuild.

Stacy said he's been in contact with company officials since the fire and they've indicated plans to rebuild. Stacy said approximately 65% of the structure was heavily damaged. He said two of six "bays" appeared not to have been damaged by fire.

"Just some sparks ignited in the plastics processing part of the plant," said Stacy. "There's a furnace that they take the raw copper and melt down to make billets to extrude into copper pipes. They had just restarted, I think, and they made plastic PVC parts, joints."

In a statement to Region 8 News, Mueller Industries gave the following: "The Company has implemented plans to reallocate production to other Mueller facilities as well as securing third party sourcing arrangements. Along with existing inventories, the Company expects to provide ongoing and reliable supply to its customers. Our distribution center is operating normally."

The statement continued. "Approximately 465 persons at employed at the site of which approximately 170 have been notified of indefinite lay-off. The duration of the lay-off will be determined in due course," the statement read.

The statement also stated losses in property and business interruption are expected to be covered by existing insurance policies.

"They're reopening the copper aspect tomorrow. (They ) had to shut the gas off for the fire for obvious reasons. They'll just be down one day, starting back tomorrow (Thursday)," said Stacy. "I feel 100% sure that they're coming back."

Stacy said the potential temporary loss of the plastics division of Mueller could be devastating.

"I feel for the people that devoted their lives out there. My next door neighbor works out there and he's worked there for years and years and years," said Stacy. "I just feel for the city and the people that are working out there. The city has weathered this economic downturn relatively well. We're in real good shape. We've been lucky and it's because we've been able to hold onto Mueller and our other factories."

According to firefighters on the scene Tuesday night, the fire was fueled by tar roofing. Stacy said smoke could be seen from as far away as Memphis. Seven fire departments responded to the call for assistance Tuesday, including the Marion Fire Department.

"It is the largest in the county, so it'll be a detriment. The structural integrity of the building seems to be okay except for the roofs, so I hope that there's a very short turnaround," said Stacy.

Stacy said insurance officials with the company were evaluating and assessing the damage throughout the day Tuesday. Fire crews were also keeping a close watch on hot spots to prevent rekindling.

"I could not believe it. I said, "Oh my God." I said, "God. Please don't let anybody get hurt in that," said Betty Gahr. "I wasn't concerned about our buildings or my house. I wasn't concerned about any of that. I was really concerned about the people working over there."

Gahr and her husband have lived in Wynne for 38 years, a few feet from the Mueller plant. She said she's always worried about an explosion. She said she was washing dishes when she heard a loud "pop."

Gahr said three of her relatives are employed by Mueller. She said she was initially concerned for her family, however, no one was injured in the fire.

"It's hard to describe at the smoke, the color of the smoke that was just rolling out of there," said Gahr. "This is going to hurt Cross County. I pray that they do build it back because we need it."

According to OSHA with the Arkansas Department of Labor, Mueller Copper Tube Company is in the process of contesting $683,000 in citations and penalties for a number of health issues within the company. A news release indicated the penalties were due to an investigation after a maintenance person was killed and two others injured when a flammable liquid leaked and ignited at the plant in Fulton, Mississippi.

The release further indicated the Wynne plant was contesting $48,500 in safety violation penalties stemming from an investigation earlier this year.

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