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A decade after fatal Georgia sugar plant explosion, US dust explosion safety standards remain elusive

20 July 2018

On February 8, 2008, a series of dust explosions at the Imperial Sugar Company plant at Port Wentworth, Georgia, killed 14 people and injured dozens more. After the incident, Congress passed a bill requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set standards on combustible dust, but, ten years’ on, no such standards have been introduced and, every year, dust explosions continue to claim lives across the country.

Imperial Sugar blast aftermath - Image: CSB
Imperial Sugar blast aftermath - Image: CSB

In 2010, Imperial paid more than $6 million in fines relating to safety violations at the Georgia refinery and its plant at Gramercy, Louisiana. It originally faced investigations by OSHA, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

The dust explosion on February 7, 2008, was caused by an accumulation of sugar dust on surfaces within the Port Wentworth plant, killing 14 and injuring a further 36, some seriously.
OSHA accused Imperial Sugar of 221 safety violations. The investigations determined that the company had been warned about dangerous sugar dust inside the Georgia plant as recently as 2002, and that prior warnings had been issued since as early as the 1960s.

After the Georgia incident, there was widespread pressure on OSHA to introduce a national standard on combustible dust and in 2009, the agency proposed a new rule. But the proposed introductory process soon ground to a halt, and OSHA has moved it over to its list of “long-term actions.”

Industry observers said major impediments faced by OSHA included the large potential cost of the rule’s introduction, an anti-regulatory political climate and an increasingly drawn-out rulemaking process.

In 2013, the Chemical Safety Board took the rare step of rebuking OSHA for not implementing national safety standards on combustible dust, citing the Imperial Sugar explosion and more than 200 other fires and explosions around the country.

Even Imperial Sugar CEO John C. Sheptor joined the chorus of critics, saying that although his company and others had taken the dust control message to heart, “Where I am most displeased is that we still do not have a standard from Washington.”

The Trump Administration finally killed the proposed rule last July, citing resource constraints and other OSHA priorities. The agency now offers only guidance on the issue, highlighting the dangers and the practices and controls that can reduce the potential for an explosion.

The Chemical Safety Board, which irritated the administration by continuing to press for new safety standards, may also be coming to an end. Last November, the agency was informed that the White House would propose cutting all its funding, thus eliminating it, but Congress is ensuring it continues to receive financial support for the time being.


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