Barrow praises crackdown on combustible dust hazard

U.S. Rep. John Barrow has praised an effort to tighten rules on combustible dust, which fueled last year's deadly disaster at a local Imperial Sugar Co. refinery.

 

"I'm very encouraged," the 12th District Democrat said Thursday following an initiative by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA said Wednesday that it has begun "comprehensive rule making" to tighten regulations governing the highly flammable substance.

Investigators say sugar-dust buildup helped cause explosions and a fire at Imperial Sugar's Port Wentworth plant. The Feb. 7, 2008, inferno killed 14 people and injured many others.

OSHA cited that disaster and others in its announcement Wednesday, which heralds a tougher worker-safety posture under President Barack Obama.

President George W. Bush had balked at recommendations that OSHA adopt stricter dust standards.

After the Imperial Sugar calamity, the U.S. House passed legislation - co-authored by Barrow - that would require OSHA to do so.

The bill stalled in the U.S. Senate after the White House said Bush would veto it if the measure passed. It was reintroduced earlier this year.

"After last year's tragedy at Imperial Sugar, I've been working to make this happen," Barrow said. "We passed a bill in the House last year to get this done, but I've always said I don't care whether it comes from Congress or the administration, just as long as it gets done."

Barrow spokeswoman Jane Brodsky said Barrow will suspend efforts to get the bill passed while the OSHA rule-making process unfolds.

"The bill doesn't go away," Brodsky said. "The congressman is going to continue to monitor the situation. But there is no need for the bill if the rule-making goes ahead satisfactorily."

So far, OSHA has supplied few details of the rule-making process, which typically takes many months and sometimes years.

OSHA spokeswoman Diana Petterson said preliminary paperwork, which could lead to a timetable for early stages of the process, will be filed "soon."

Meanwhile, OSHA is seeking to fine Imperial $8.8 million for more than 200 alleged safety violations at Port Wentworth and at the company's refinery in Gramercy, La.

Imperial, which is appealing the fines, pledged enthusiastic support for the proposed new standards.

Imperial President and CEO John Sheptor called the agency's initiative a "milestone step."

"We have advocated for such a regulation since our ... tragedy as a critical catalyst to transform the way that dust is managed across numerous U.S. industries," Sheptor said.

He said Imperial has teamed up with other firms to analyze sugar-dust hazards and to develop new design standards for sugar processing.

"We will be early adopters of this new OSHA standard and assume a leadership role in encouraging improved risk management techniques within our industry," Sheptor said.

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