Imperial Sugar VP says conditions were shocking

Vice president of operations Graham Harris Graham testifying before a Senate subcommittee.
Vice president of operations Graham Harris Graham testifying before a Senate subcommittee.

By Brooke Kelley - bio | email

PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - Will OSHA put new standards in place to keep another tragedy like the one at Imperial Sugar from happening again?

OSHA fined Imperial Sugar almost $9 million, stating that the blast was fueled by a build up of combustible dust.

Today, an Imperial Sugar executive along with several others testified before a Senate subcommittee.

OSHA, the US Chemical Safety Board and many others spent some time this morning explaining their role in the investigation.

But nothing was quite as shocking as what vice president of operations Graham Harris Graham had to say about what he claims he found at the Port Wentworth plant prior to February 7.

Senators listened intently as Graham told them his side of the story. "The conditions were shocking. Port Wentworth was a dirty and dangerous facility," said Graham.

And in his mind, needed to be shut down.

Graham went on to say that there were piles of sugar dust caked on equipment similar to pictures we obtained from the chemical safety board taken at the Port Wentworth plant in October of 2006.

After firing the plant manager in December, Graham went back to the plant.

"I visited the Port Wentworth plant two weeks prior to the Port Wentworth explosion. Housekeeping efforts were improved and in my opinion they couldn't have been any worse," he said during his testimony. "Port Wentworth safety coordinators had identified 400 safety violations since December. During the meeting I congratulated the management team on their efforts however there was still a long way to go."

During the hearing, Senator Saxby Chambliss asked Graham why they didn't shut the place down.

"Why didn't you Mr. Graham go to the management, if you don't shut this plant down and clean up you are going to have a dangerous situation which did occur two weeks later," asked Chambliss.

"I did," Graham replied. "I told Mr. Sheptor I was surprised we hadn't killed anyone already because the plant is so dangerous I was told that I have too much passion and too extreme and I had to temper it."

Imperial CEO John Sheptor says his communication with Graham led him to believe the plant had made significant improvements. Sheptor wasn't at today's hearing but he did submit a statement, saying:

"Prior to the February 7 explosion at the Port Wentworth facility, Imperial Sugar was focused on safety and health, including house keeping and believed that much progress was made."

The Senate subcommittee will review all the testimonies and issue a report.

Today, Imperial Sugar board members also approved the reconstruction project for the Port Wentworth facility.