Imperial Sugar, OSHA settle explosion case

Imperial Sugar has agreed to pay more than $6 million in fines for safety violations at two of its U.S. plants, including the Georgia refinery where a dust explosion killed 14 workers in 2008, federal regulators said Wednesday.

The settlement with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration comes nearly two years after regulators first sought to penalize the Texas-based company for allowing combustible sugar dust to accumulate in dangerous amounts inside its plants despite prior warnings.

“Clearly, health and safety must become this company’s top priorities,” Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement. “This agreement requires Imperial Sugar to make extensive changes to its safety practices, and it underscores the importance of proactively addressing workplace safety and health hazards.”

OSHA had originally sought to fine the Fort Bend County-based company $8.7 million for 221 safety violations at the nation’s second-largest sugar refinery near Savannah and its plant in Gramercy, La. The company contested the fines to an administrative law judge, leading to lengthy settlement talks that resulted in an agreement to pay 70 percent of the originally proposed amount.

Imperial Sugar noted that it admitted no wrongdoing by settling the case.

“Imperial agreed to the terms with OSHA in order to settle these matters expeditiously and amicably,” CEO John Sheptor said in a statement, “and to allow us to better concentrate our resources toward not only enhancing the safety of our own facilities, but also to assist the sugar industry as a whole in addressing workplace hazards.”

Investigators determined that sugar dust trapped inside the 92-year-old Georgia refinery ignited like gunpowder on Feb. 7, 2008, setting off a chain of explosions that killed 14 workers and injured 36.

Investigations by two federal agencies determined that Imperial Sugar had been warned about dangerous dust inside the Georgia plant as recently as 2002, and that prior warnings had been issued since as early as the 1960s.

Imperial Sugar says it added numerous safety features when it rebuilt the Georgia plant last year. The settlement with OSHA also requires the company to maintain an improved housekeeping program, employ a full-time safety manager for the Georgia plant and undergo audits by outside safety experts for the next three years.

Imperial Sugar agreed to pay $4.05 million in fines for 124 safety violations, including 69 willful violations, at its Georgia refinery.

The company will pay an additional $2 million in fines for 97 violations OSHA found at its Louisiana plant during inspections after the Georgia explosion.

Kijuanus Wright, a former employee who suffered severe burns in the 2008 explosion, left a meeting OSHA held Wednesday with victims and their families saying he’s glad Imperial Sugar is being forced to adopt new safety standards. But he said the fines didn’t seem like enough punishment and he’d like to see the government bring criminal charges.

“Somebody should be held accountable for it because there were so many lives lost,” said Wright, who still wears protective wraps over the skin grafted to his arms. “If you’re supplying the whole Southeast with sugar, $6 million isn’t a lot.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Savannah did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on whether it’s still weighing a possible criminal case against Imperial Sugar executives. OSHA officials declined to discuss the issue.

Cindy Coe, OSHA’s southeast regional administrator, said the agency inspected Imperial Sugar’s rebuilt Georgia plant in January and plans to keep a close watch on the company.

“All we can do is try to make sure this never happens again,” Coe said.

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