SAVANNAH, Ga. Federal officials said Friday that Imperial Sugar Co. should face fines of more than $8.7 million for violations at two plants, including a Georgia facility where an explosion killed 13 people.
The fines would be the third-highest in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's nearly 40-year existence. 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 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 workers wading through 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 against the Georgia plant, including 61 considered egregious. In Louisiana, Imperial Sugar 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.
Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor said in a statement Friday the company would contest OSHA's findings.
"We believe that the facts do not merit the allegations made," Sheptor said. "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," Republican Rep. 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. The initial explosion forced more dust into other parts of the plant, he said, causing several secondary explosions.
Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas, has owned the 90-year-old refinery, which produces Dixie Crystals brand sugar, since 1997. Located in Port Wentworth, a few miles outside Savannah, it is the second-largest sugar refinery in the U.S.
Three refinery workers remain hospitalized with severe burns at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta. Two are in critical condition, while the third is in good condition, hospital spokeswoman Beth Frits said.
A Senate subcommittee planned a hearing Tuesday on combustible dust hazards, and an Imperial executive was scheduled to testify.
Imperial Sugar plans to spend $180 to $230 million to rebuild the refinery's packaging plant and silos destroyed by the blast, Sheptor said. It plans to resume refining raw sugar before the end of year and complete a new packaging plant and storage silos by next summer.