PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - For the first time in over a year, the Imperial Sugar refinery is officially open for business.
Tuesday, the Port Wentworth plant fired up the boilers to begin making liquefied sugar and eventually processed sugar.
Much of the refinery was destroyed in a February, 2008 explosion that killed 14 people and injured dozens more.
The restart of the refinery is a major milestone for the company that has been working to rebuild the Port Wentworth facility for over a year. See Sugar production begins at Imperial plant.
Two and a half million pounds of liquefied sugar a day will now flow through parts of the plant which was redesigned with state-of-the-art equipment.
Employees now have energy efficient equipment to work with in the refinery, especially in the drying area that was heavily damaged in the blast.
Employees past and present say Tuesday's official start of sugar production is a day they've been waiting for.
And who better to christen the new refinery than Imperial Sugar president and CEO John Sheptor.
"We've been here for 91 years. Some of our employees are fifth and sixth generation employees," said Sheptor. "Restarting this factory gives the hope and promise that will continue for the generations to come forward."
"It means a lot to everybody to know we are going to restart the refinery," said project manager Don Bryant, who has worked with the refinery for 35 years.
But it wasn't just the current employees who came out to celebrate. Former workers like Joe Alberino say they wouldn't have missed this day for the world.
"It was a wonderful 41 years," he told WTOC. "They were a long time ago, but they were great. Glad to hear about the news about what's going on. We're here to cheer them on."
And the cheer was heard throughout the plant's grounds.
As the refinery's boilers fired up, Imperial Sugar executives signaled the new beginning by ringing in the refinery.
And as many Imperial Sugar employees know, being ready to refine is a major step in the right direction.
"To 500 employees, it's a wonderful thing to go back to work," said Alberino.
Senior mechanic Ronnie Smiley has been waiting for this day for 16 months.
"Being able to start up is going to be a fantastic time," he said. "To be able to supply the sugar we need to supply. We had a good part in the market, we lost it, but I believe it's going to come back."
For the first time, WTOC was allowed inside the new packaging facility. Although still under construction, it's the last phase before the entire plant is totally reopen for business.
"This is the dryer, over here," Sheptor showed WTOC. "All the sugar will come through the dryer and be dried. Then it's screened at the top here, then conveyed over this area to the bulk area. In the bulk loading facility, we'll be able to simultaneously load two rail cars, two trucks at the same time and at a much higher rate than we have before."
Sheptor admits rebuilding may be a slow process but is optimistic about the future.
"I feel satisfied that a good job has been done. Commitments have been kept in that new standards have been achieved and I have a sense of anticipation for what's going to happen over the next three months," Sheptor added.
The refinery is only running at 40 percent capacity. The refinery expects to start shipping liquid sugar by Thursday. The packaging plant is scheduled to reopen in the fall.