SAVANNAH, Ga. - Federal officials said yesterday that
John Sheptor, chief executive of Imperial Sugar, said the company would contest the findings by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The fines would be the third-highest in the 40-year history of the OSHA. They include $5 million for the explosion near Savannah on Feb. 7 and $3.7 million for the plant in Gramercy, La.
OSHA investigators concluded that the explosion was most likely caused when a large bucket used to haul sugar in a silo elevator broke loose and struck the metal siding, causing a spark that ignited sugar dust accumulated beneath the 100-foot silos.
The agency said its investigation uncovered company audits, insurance records, and other documents showing Imperial Sugar had been warned about combustible dust hazards in its plants since 2002. Its inspection of the Louisiana plant a month after the Georgia blast found sugar dust up to 4 feet deep.
"This catastrophic accident could have been prevented if Imperial Sugar had complied with existing OSHA safety and health standards," OSHA chief Edwin Foulke said at a news conference in Savannah.
OSHA found 120 violations at the Georgia plant, including 61 considered egregious. In Louisiana, Imperial was cited for 91 additional violations, including 47 egregious ones. Many violations were similar to those in Georgia.
Fines for the Louisiana plant included $36,000 proposed by OSHA in March, after an inspection revealed levels of dust it considered so dangerous that Imperial Sugar was forced to shut down its powdered sugar operation for several days.
"We believe that the facts do not merit the allegations made," Sheptor said yesterday. "As we go forward, we will continue to focus on the safety of our employees and our contractors."
OSHA officials said they were preparing for potentially lengthy litigation over the citations.
"It's pretty stiff," US Representative Jack Kingston of Savannah said of the proposed fines. "The third-highest penalty in OSHA's history is certainly a very bad thing to happen, but it underscores the tragedy."
The day of the Georgia explosion, workers beneath one of the storage silos had been knocking loose hardened sugar with metal rods, causing large amounts of dust to accumulate in a confined space, said Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA's lead investigator in the case. The silo elevator and conveyors beneath it were shut down at the time, he said. But when workers on the next shift turned them on later, enough dust remained in the air to ignite like gunpowder.