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Workers seek severance from closed Pa. solar plant

IMPERIAL, Pa. (AP) -- Ten workers who claim they're owed about $197,000 in severance pay want a federal judge in Pittsburgh to force a shuttered plant that makes solar energy mirrors into bankruptcy.

The workers are among a few dozen who lost their jobs when the Flabeg Solar U.S. Corp. plant in Findlay Township shut down on March 28.

Flabeg's bankruptcy attorney, Robert Lampl, wants the judge to, instead, let the company voluntarily convert tor Chapter 11 protection in hopes it will reorganize its finances and operate once again.

"The supposition is that somehow they will get back on-stream," Lampl said.

Also at issue is whether the company must repay any of the nearly $20 million in federal, state and county tax breaks and other incentives the company received to build the plant which opened four years ago.

Flabeg received $9 million in state grants and loans and $10.2 million in federal clean energy tax credits from the Obama administration under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, more commonly known as the stimulus bill, to open a plant more than four football fields in size about a mile from Pittsburgh International Airport in 2009.

Flabeg Solar president Torsten Koehler said "the overall slow environment" in the solar energy industry led to the shutdown, which Lampl said occurred after its German parent company, Flabeg GmbH, cut off funding to the $30 million plant.

Flabeg officials initially projected the plant would employ 300, but it's payroll topped out at only about 200 employees and was 70 or fewer when the plant shut down, Lampl said.

Koehler said the company is reviewing the government incentive packages to determine whether it must pay back any of the grants or tax incentives, which are sometimes contingent on employment numbers or longevity.

The company acknowledges it owes the severance money, but doesn't have it and estimates it is between $6 million and $7 million in debt, including unpaid vendors.

The plants used a robotic production line to create large mirrors — more than five feet in diameter and about 70 pounds — for solar energy plants. The mirrors reflect and concentrate solar rays into fluid-filled tubes, the steam from which drives turbines that produce electricity.