A huge fire last year at a sugar refinery near Savannah, Ga., that killed 14 workers and injured 36 more was “entirely preventable,” a federal official said Thursday as the results of an investigation into the fire’s causes were released.
The owner of the plant, the Imperial Sugar Company, and the plant’s managers knew for decades about the hazards of sugar dust but failed to take the necessary precautions, according to the report, issued by the Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial chemical accidents.
The report blamed inadequate equipment design, poor maintenance and ineffective housekeeping for the explosion and fire in February 2008, and said that Imperial Sugar and the sugar industry as a whole were aware of the dangers of dust explosions at least as early as 1925.
In a written statement, John C. Sheptor, the president and chief executive of Imperial Sugar, said the company had “collaborated” with the safety board on the report and was “working diligently” to put in place the report’s safety recommendations.
The report also cited internal memorandums at the plant, in Port Wentworth, Ga., dating from 1967, before it was owned by Imperial Sugar, showing that managers were concerned about the possibility that accumulations of sugar dust could ignite a chain of explosions that would destroy “large sections of the plant.”
The initial explosion most likely occurred inside a sugar conveyor situated beneath two silos, the report said.
The conveyor had recently been enclosed, creating “a confined, unventilated space where sugar dust could accumulate to an explosive concentration,” the safety board said.
That explosion quickly spread, igniting sugar dust and spilled sugar in adjacent areas.
Imperial Sugar had not conducted evacuation drills and the explosion and fires disabled most emergency lighting, trapping workers in a dark maze of corridors, the report said.
The Chemical Safety Board does not issue citations or levy fines, but in July 2008, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found violations at the Port Wentworth plant and at an Imperial Sugar plant in Gramercy, La., where an inspection five weeks after the Georgia fire found sugar dust four feet thick in some areas.
The agency proposed fines of $8.7 million, the third-largest in the agency’s history. Imperial Sugar is contesting the fine.
Brent J. Savage, a lawyer in Savannah who is representing some of the victims or family members of victims in lawsuits against the plant, said the report reinforced their case and cast new suspicion on insurers and other third-party inspectors, who the report said failed to make note of accumulations of sugar dust at the plant.
The first of his clients whose case is going to trial is Paul Seckinger, a mechanic who was badly burned and who, Mr. Savage said, has incurred more than $8 million in medical bills.
“They did an unbelievably in-depth study and they had access to things that a typical plaintiff’s lawyer would not,” Mr. Savage said of the safety board.
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