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Jackson enters sea trials after repowering in Superior

Brady Slater Forum News Service The first freighter to be repowered in Duluth since at least the 1980s made its way onto Lake Superior on Thursday for the first day of sea trials. The Herbert C. Jackson, a 57-year-old vessel belonging to the Inte...

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The freighter Herbert C. Jackson moves toward the Aerial Lift Bridge on its way out of the Duluth-Superior Harbor on Thursday morning. The ship spent months at Fraser Shipyards in Superior undergoing a steam-to-diesel conversion. (Andrew Krueger / akrueger@duluthnews.com)

Brady Slater

Forum News Service

The first freighter to be repowered in Duluth since at least the 1980s made its way onto Lake Superior on Thursday for the first day of sea trials.

The Herbert C. Jackson, a 57-year-old vessel belonging to the Interlake Steamship Co. out of Ohio, made it out onto the lake to about the equivalent of 27th Avenue East before returning to dock at Fraser Shipyards in Superior.

Fraser converted the old steamship to a diesel propulsion system. The ship will be tested again Friday and if all goes well will be bound in the coming days for Silver Bay, where it will be loaded with iron ore and put back into circulation.

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"This was a large project, and Fraser stepped to the plate to do it," said Interlake President Mark Barker. "We got a very good product out of it, and the yard should be proud of what they produced."

Originally scheduled for sea trials in mid-summer, the effort was beset by complications, including a March shutdown of the project by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA has proposed a $1.4 million fine against Fraser, claiming the company over-exposed workers to lead when they were taking out the old steamship engine and its components.

"It's a complicated project and it was the first time we've done a project like this with Fraser," Barker said. "There's a learning curve. Sometimes it takes longer to get it done than expected. We ran into some delays in engineering and other things and part of the project ended up taking longer than expected."

Barker said the OSHA review "probably slowed things down slightly."

In an August news release announcing several violations, OSHA cited an ambitious timetable that contributed to the situation.

"Fraser Shipyards accepted a contract with a very low profit margin and penalties for delayed completion, but could not meet the schedule without endangering its workers," said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, in August. "This employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure."

Fraser officials have denied the claims and asked for a settlement conference to respond to the proposed fine. Rob Karwath, a spokesman for Fraser, said the conference happened several weeks ago and that the company is awaiting a final determination from OSHA.

Additionally, one of the workers on the project, James Holder, a citizen of the state of Virginia, filed a lawsuit against Fraser and Interlake in U.S. District Court in Madison in May, seeking damages in excess of $75,000 for what he claimed was exposure to toxic levels of lead while performing work at Fraser on the Jackson. In the latest development in that lawsuit, Interlake filed a motion in August to dismiss its involvement in the lawsuit.

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Documents filed with the court revealed that 20 other workers have sought insurance claims related to injuries from lead exposure while working on the Herbert C. Jackson prior to March 29.

Barker declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Fraser is a subsidiary of Capstan Corp., a holding company based in Duluth that also owns Viant Crane and the commercial real estate agency Atwater Group.

Fraser provided a statement to the News Tribune on Thursday, having declined interviews since OSHA involvement began in March.

"Fraser Shipyards Inc. is honored the Interlake Steamship Co. provided the opportunity for the Herbert C. Jackson to be repowered at our company in Superior," said Fraser President James Farkas in the written statement. "As the Jackson departs for sea trials, the entire Fraser team wishes to thank Interlake for this project and for the jobs it created in our region. This opportunity translated into hundreds of jobs in our area at a time of economic uncertainty for many."

The repowering of the Jackson made it the last Interlake steamship to be converted to diesel during a 10-year modernization effort by the company.

"This was our fifth repower and we learned something at every one," Barker said. "Everyone became better for it. You're always going to run into complications or technical issues when you do a project of this size and you learn from it. It makes us all better."

Saying he was excited to see the vessel get back to work moving raw materials to manufacturing centers on the lower Great Lakes, Barker added, "We're very happy."

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