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US milling company charged with fraud and conspiracy to conceal safety violations relating to 2017 explosion that killed five

16 May 2022

A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging a corn milling company, a company Vice President, two environmental coordinators and three additional supervisors with crimes related to worker safety, fraud, air pollution and obstruction of justice, the US Department of Justice announced on May 11. The charges relate to a grain dust explosion in May 2017 which killed five workers and injured 14 others at Didion Milling in Cambria, Wisconsin.

Image: US CSB
Image: US CSB

According to the indictment, Didion Milling wilfully violated two federal safety standards under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) at its plant by failing to develop and implement a written program to effectively prevent and remove combustible grain dust accumulations, as well as failing to install explosion venting or explosion suppression on a dust filter collector. These two failings thereby caused the deaths of five employees due to a combustible dust explosion on May 31, 2017.

The indictment says that for at least five years, Didion Milling covered up its safety failures by forging documents and falsifying records, including back-dating and back-filling a log book to make it seem like regular cleaning had taken place.

Didion Milling, its Vice president of operations Derrick Clark, its former Food Safety Superintendent Shawn Mesner, its former Shift Superintendent Anthony Hess, and its former Shift Superintendent Joel Niemeyer, as well as former Environmental Coordinators James Lenz and Joseph Winch, were all indicted for conspiracy to commit federal offenses in order to conceal violations and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies. The alleged conspiracy included an agreement to falsify cleaning logs and baghouse monitoring logs, submit false environmental compliance certifications, and provide false testimony on matters within the jurisdictions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Didion Milling and the individuals knew that the lack of cleaning at the facility created unsafe conditions, but they did nothing to fix it and lied about it to auditors and government agencies, the indictment states. One example that the indictment lists is from 2014 when an employee changed around 300 “task not completed” cleaning entries in a log book to “Superintendent verified tasks were completed on this date” to help cover up the fact that regular cleaning was not taking place.

According to the indictment, federal regulations relating to filter collectors were also ignored with Didion Milling having at least 24 filter collectors at its facility of which none were either located outside, had venting to the outside, or had an explosion suppression system.

Didion Milling, Clark, Mesner, Hess and Niemeyer also conspired to commit fraud by agreeing to take deceptive measures to conceal the failure to adhere to food safety procedures at the mill, including by falsifying the cleaning logbook to conceal the fact that Didion Milling was not following its written cleaning schedule, so that the company could maintain its food safety certification and continue to sell its products to food and beverage manufacturers. 

Didion Milling and the individual defendants are further charged in the indictment with related substantive offenses. Hess, Clark and Didion Milling are charged with obstruction of justice for providing false and misleading testimony to OSHA after the May 2017 explosion concerning their knowledge of combustible dust hazards.

Former Didion Milling Shift Superintendents Michael Bright and Nicholas Booker previously pleaded guilty to making false entries in Didion Milling’s cleaning logbook and false entries in the company’s baghouse log, which involved matters within the jurisdiction of OSHA and EPA, respectively.

In a statement, the US Department of Justice said that if convicted of the OSH Act offenses, Didion Milling may be ordered to make restitution to victims as compensation for their financial losses, fined, and sentenced to corporate probation with conditions. If convicted of fraud conspiracy, a defendant may be sentenced to a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years, fined not more than $1 million and ordered to forfeit assets derived from fraud. If convicted of conspiracy to commit federal offenses and other substantive offenses set forth in the indictment, a defendant may face maximum terms of imprisonment ranging from five to 20 years and fines of up to $1 million depending on the crime of conviction.

In a statement sent to local press, Didion Milling called the charges unwarranted and said safety was of the upmost importance to the company. The company called the explosion a “horrible accident, not a criminal act”.

The 2017 explosion is not the only incident involving safety violations that has occurred at the plant in recent years. In June 2021, OSHA announced that it had fined Didion Milling a total of $676,000 after a worker died from engulfment in an unsafe grain bin. Didion received 14 citations for grain-handling safety violations. An OSHA investigation found that the manager entered the unsafe grain bin despite recently having an external process underway to remove corn from the clogged silo.

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