CSB: Imperial ignored dangers of combustible dust - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

CSB: Imperial ignored dangers of combustible dust

Officials from the Chemical Safety Board released its findings on the Imperial Sugar explosion. Officials from the Chemical Safety Board released its findings on the Imperial Sugar explosion.
(Source: CSB) (Source: CSB)

By Melanie Ruberti - bio | email

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - It's the worst combustible dust explosion the US Chemical Safety Board has ever investigated and now, CSB is releasing its findings on the Imperial Sugar blast that killed 14 people and injured dozens more.

According to the CSB final report, Imperial Sugar knew an explosion of this magnitude could happen.

Investigators said documents taken from Imperial Sugar show the facility knew about the dangers of combustible dust since 1925.

They also showed that Port Wentworth plant managers were concerned about a massive explosion and wrote a memo about it back in 1967, but ignored the dangers for decades.

The huge fireball that lit up the night sky and killed 14 people on February 7, 2008 was caused by two blasts at Imperial Sugar.

"It's heart wrenching," said CSB chief investigator John Vorderbrueggen. "We were scratching our heads thinking,' where do we begin?"

Vorderbrueggen spent four months at the Port Wentworth facility following the blast, climbing through rubble and examining equipment that was salvageable.

"It started under the three silo's, almost directly in the center of the silos and progressed east and west out into the packing buildings, which surrounded the silos," described Vorderbrueggen about the blast.

His findings show how a bearing in a steel covered conveyor belt ignited, sparking the first explosion. That first explosion could have been contained to that area, but instead the blast traveled into the packaging area, dislodging more sugar and dust.

The CSB says that's when the second and ultimately deadly explosion happened. And according to the report, both explosions could have been prevented.

"Good engineering, good installation of equipment, well maintained equipment and especially good housekeeping, it wouldn't have happened," explained CSB chairman John Bresland. "This was a tragic accident that should not have happened."

Bresland says they also found sugar dust, inches deep in some places, piled up on the floor and other surfaces.


Source - CSB: Figure 19. Motor cooling fins and fan
guard covered with sugar dust; large piles of sugar
cover the floor (Imperial Sugar photo)

The report also talks about employee safety training and rules at the Port Wentworth plant. In the report, the CSB says safety training, "...did not contain information about combustible dust."

Investigators also added that if employees had been properly trained on the dangers of combustible sugar dust, it could have helped prevent the massive blasts.

"It was very sobering to see the amount of damage that was done and to realize this damage was done by sugar, sugar dust," said Bresland. "You think to yourself, 'How could this be? How could all these people be killed?'"

Now, the CSB hopes the Port Wentworth explosion and its report will prevent any more blasts like this from happening again.

"Identify those lessons so those people did not die in vain and those terrible injuries that are life changing to many of the folks here in Port Wentworth will not go to waste," said Vorderbrueggen.

The CSB will present its findings to the public and has made recommendations on how all sugar refinery's can prevent this kind of accident.

The CSB board will then vote on the report and if passed, it could enact legislative changes in the future.

You can follow that meeting of the investigators' presentation, public comments on the report, board discussion/amendments and the final vote by going to: http://twitter.com/chemsafetyboard

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined Imperial Sugar nearly $9 million for violations at the Port Wentworth plant and at its plant in Louisiana, the third largest total in OSHA's history.

At 6:30pm, Imperial Sugar issued the following statement regarding CSB's investigation:

Port Wentworth, GA - On September 24, 2009, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued its final draft Investigation Report regarding Imperial Sugar Company's February 7, 2008 accident at its Port Wentworth sugar refinery.

"Imperial Sugar and the CSB have collaborated throughout their investigation," said CEO and President John Sheptor.  "We appreciate their professionalism and we value their contributions to our combustible dust and safety program.  We have worked very hard to make our facilities the safest possible, and will continue to share what we have learned and will learn with the CSB and industry."

Included in the CSB's final report are five recommendations to Imperial. "The CSB recommendations are excellent guidance for the control and management of combustible dust.  Imperial accepts the CSB recommendations and is working diligently to implement them as part of our safety improvement initiatives.  We have listened to the CSB and other experts during the past twenty months and used their guidance in the reduction of risk in all of our operating sites.  We hope that all companies that share the risk of combustible dust also will heed the insights of this report," said Sheptor. 

Sheptor added, "We continue to be grateful for the support the Company and its employees have received from the Savannah-area communities throughout our rebuilding process.  We also look forward to future collaborations with the CSB and others to advance safety, both at Imperial Sugar and within our industry."

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined Imperial Sugar nearly $9 million for violations at the Port Wentworth plant and at its plant in Louisiana, the third largest total in OSHA's history.

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