NEW ULM — A judge’s ruling saying an air compressor service company wasn’t financially responsible for a fire that nearly destroyed a New Ulm butter plant in 2004 has been upheld by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Associated Milk Producers Inc. challenged the ruling, which was made by former Brown County District Court Judge John Rodenberg in December. The ruling said Compressor Services, a business that was providing maintenance for one of two compressor systems in the area where the fire started, couldn’t be legally linked to the fire.
The AMPI manufacturing plant in downtown New Ulm caught fire Dec. 1, 2004. Several fire departments spent more than 12 hours putting out the blaze, which spread quickly through the plant. It took days to clean up the melted butter that had flowed into the streets and downhill toward the Minnesota River.
An investigation, which was described in the appeals court ruling, later determined a Sullair compressor had been having maintenance problems for several months. It had been shut off before the fire started because it was leaking lubricating oil. The leak was discovered late in the afternoon, so the maintenance staff shut the compressor down for about 20 minutes to add 2 to 3 gallons of oil. They planned to call Compressor Services the next day.
While that compressor was off, a less powerful Atlas Copco air compressor was providing the air compression needed for the factory’s machinery. The Sullair compressor was turned back on at about 5:15 p.m. About an hour later there was an explosion in the compressor mezzanine and flames shot out of the Atlas Copco compressor.
Experts examining the fire damage found the Atlas Copco compressor hadn’t been grounded properly and didn’t have pressure or temperature sensors. They also found that the fire spread quickly through the mezzanine’s walls and ceiling tiles, which were made of flammable materials. Cardboard boxes also were stored in the area, helping feed the fire.