September 24, 2009 / 6:18 PM / in 8 years

Imperial Sugar plant explosion was "preventable"

ATLANTA (Reuters) - An explosion at Imperial Sugar’s plant near Savannah, Georgia, in 2008 that killed 14 people was “entirely preventable,” the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said in a report on its investigation.

Shares in Imperial Sugar, the biggest U.S. sugar producer, fell as much as 26 percent on Thursday to $10.87 before rebounding.

Imperial Sugar had been aware of the hazard of combustible dust for decades before the accident that also caused 36 injuries, mostly related to burns and many of which were life-threatening, the board said on Thursday.

It recommended that Imperial Sugar adopt better procedures and training for dealing with the hazard of combustible dust.

“The explosion at the plant was entirely preventable and the deaths that occurred in February 2008 should never have happened,” CSB Chairman John Bresland said.

The board spent 19 months investigating what was the second most deadly industrial explosion in the United States in the last decade and the worst dust explosion the organization has ever investigated, it said.

“This accident was caused by poor equipment design, poor maintenance and poor housekeeping. If the dust was not allowed to build up, this terrible accident would not have happened and we would not have had the terrible injuries that we saw,” Bresland said.

Bresland presented a final draft report likely to be adopted at a full board meeting open to the public later in the day in Savannah.

But several international unions criticized the board for not repeating in the report its earlier recommendation to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration of strong standards on combustible dust in factories.

“They (CSB) seem to be leaning toward the interests of industry ... rather than toward the interests of the stakeholders involved,” said Jim Frederick of the United Steelworkers health safety and environment department.

“Had a combustible dust standard been in place at Imperial Sugar this catastrophic incident would not have taken place,” Frederick said.

CASCADE OF EXPLOSIONS

Explosions devastated the refinery’s buildings, the report said.

The primary explosion occurred inside a sugar conveyor located beneath two sugar-storage silos that were inadequately designed and had allowed a build-up of sugar dust. That, in turn, triggered a cascade of secondary dust explosions.

One problem was that Imperial had not conducted evacuation drills for employees and the explosions disabled most of the emergency lighting, making it difficult for workers to escape.

“Imperial’s management, as well as the managers at the Port Wentworth refinery, did not take effective actions over many years to control dust explosion hazards even as smaller fires and explosions continued to occur at their plants and other sugar facilities,” said CSB investigator John Vorderbrueggen.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.

Imperial’s shares stood at $12.15 at 12.30 p.m.(1730 GMT) on Thursday.

Editing by Jim Loney and Marguerita Choy

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