Feds target combustible dust, an issue at Savannah sugar plant

Thursday, April 30, 2009 5:53 AM
Last updated 4:47 PM
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A new federal crackdown is targeting combustible dust, which fueled last year's deadly disaster at a local Imperial Sugar Co. plant.

Federal officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Wednesday they have began "comprehensive rulemaking" concerning the volatile substance.

Investigators say buildups of highly flammable sugar dust helped cause explosions and a fire at Imperial Sugar's Port Wentworth refinery. The Feb. 7, 2008, inferno killed 14 people and injured dozens of others.

On Wednesday, OSHA cited those casualties and said that since 1980, more than 130 workers have been killed and more than 780 injured in combustible dust explosions.

Wednesday's announcement reflects a tougher worker-safety posture by the new administration of President Barack Obama.

After the Imperial Sugar calamity, the U.S. House passed legislation calling on OSHA to tighten its dust-control rules.

The measure, co-authored by U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a Savannah Democrat, stalled in the U.S. Senate after President George W. Bush indicated he would veto it if it passed. The bill was reintroduced earlier this year.

On Wednesday, OSHA acknowledged support for stricter combustible-dust standards voiced last year at two congressional hearings.

One - a July session before a Senate panel - focused heavily on the Imperial explosions.

The agency also noted that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended in 2006 that OSHA issue a new combustible dust standard.

OSHA's announcement Wed-nesday included a statement by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, whose department is in charge of the safety agency.

"Over the years," Solis said, "combustible-dust explosions have caused many deaths and devastating injuries that could have been prevented."

The announcement gave few details of the rule-making process, which typically takes many months and sometimes years.

OSHA spokeswoman Diana Petterson, listed as the official contact on the matter, did not return a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday night.

The announcement did say the agency will "convene related stakeholder meetings to evaluate possible regulatory methods."

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. The company is appealing.

At least 39 lawsuits have been filed on behalf of victims of the Port Wentworth disaster.

Like OSHA, plaintiffs' lawyers said Imperial knew about combustible dust risks at the plant and failed to eliminate them.

Steve Behm, a spokesman for Imperial - which denies the allegations - said he would respond to the new developments today.

Mark Tate, an attorney for a group of plaintiffs, said the OSHA initiative is "needed" and "encouraging."

Tate called it a welcome contrast to the Bush adminstration, which he said had a "hands off" approach to industrial safety.

"The new administration clearly values worker safety over corporate profitability," he said.

But he questioned whether tougher rules would have prevented the deaths and injuries at Port Wentworth.

"Imperial knew it had a combustible dust problem and that it was dangerous, but it didn't care," he said.

Behm recently listed numerous steps he said the company took to make the Port Wentworth refinery safer before it blew up and burned.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2007, he said, the plant spent more than $1.7 million on safety-related projects.

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treerock 04/30/09 - 06:36 am
great, more government

great, more government meddling. dubya would have never done this. capitalism has rights too, you know.

Niko Mahs
Niko Mahs 05/01/09 - 08:21 am
When you kill 14 people and

When you kill 14 people and injure a score of other workers, then OSHA needs to get involved. Dust explosions follow the laws of physics, and if the hazards were there then somebody missed their mitigation and control.

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