Investigation completed into sugar refinery explosion that killed 13

Reported by Brooke Kelley - bio | email

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - OSHA says Imperial Sugar must pay almost $9 million for more than a hundred safety violations. See Near record fine for Imperial Sugar.

OSHA wrapped up the investigation into the explosion at the sugar refinery that killed 13 people and injured 40 others.

After conducting employee interviews, obtaining documents and on site investigations both here and in Gramercy, Louisiana, OSHA is fining Imperial Sugar $8.7 million, the third largest fine in OSHA history.

Since the explosion, OSHA investigators have been conducting interviews and inspecting the Port Wentworth plant.

"We determined the the likely cause was in the east packing of the production elevator and conveyed sugar from the tunnel of the silos this initial explosion caused dust particles which provided fuel for second explosions and other areas of the plant," said OSHA's Savannah investigator Kurt Petermeyer.

OSHA also inspected Imperial's plant in Gramercy, Louisiana, not only issuing additional fines and citations for that plant but immediately posting an imminent danger notice there.

"In some spots the dust was four feet thick, effectively closing the powder mill plant," said Edwin Foulke with the US Department of Labor.

That inspection led to another $3.7 million fine for Imperial, making the combined fine $8.7 million, the third largest in OSHA's history.

"OSHA investigators found that senior managers were aware of combustible dust and they did not follow up any action to litigate those hazards conditions," said Petermeyer.

Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor immediately disputed today's report and issued a statement that says in part, "Based on this review we have filed with OSHA a notice of contest of the citations in which we challenge the allegations. In short, we believe the facts do not merit the allegations made."

WTOC has obtained emails Imperial plans to use in its defense of today's fines and citations.

In one email exchanged between Sheptor and vice president Graham Harris Graham, Graham writes about his recent visit to the Port Wentworth plant. In the email he says it's, "Very successful. The plants have enormous improvement, especially in housekeeping. Actually even better than I expected."

Sheptor also says they voluntarily closed the Gramercy plant.

Here's the bottom line on OSHA's investigation:

OSHA fined Imperial Sugar almost $9 million, $5 million at the Port Wentworth plant and more than $3 million at their Louisiana plant. The money will go to the US Treasury Department.

Sheptor says the fines are excessive and the company will contest the findings.

This is the third largest fine handed out by OSHA. The first was more than $21 million to BP for a refinery explosion in Texas back in 2005. The second was for $11 million against IMC fertilizer in 1991.

WTOC-TV contributed this report.