No criminal charges for Imperial Sugar in deadly blast

No federal criminal charges will be filed against Imperial Sugar Co. in the 2008 explosion and fire that destroyed the refinery and left 14 workers dead, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced this week.

The blast and fires, which also injured at least 40 people, were fueled by combustible sugar dust that swept through the plant, investigators said. The plant is located in Port Wentworth, on the banks of the Savannah River.

U.S. Attorney Edward Tarver of the Southern District of Georgia concluded there was no evidence that Imperial Sugar intentionally disregarded or was indifferent to plant safety standards by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Imperial Sugar, a once Texas-based company that is now owned by a Swiss agribusiness firm, has not commented on the U.S. attorney’s finding. On its website, the company says, “Imperial Sugar will comply with all applicable laws and regulations, and apply responsible standards where laws and regulations do not exist.”

In addition to OSHA, the Feb. 8, 2008, explosion was investigated by the Chemical Safety Board and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. All three agencies concluded that the explosion had been fueled by sugar dust, which can be combustible if it is suspended in air. They also said the accident was preventable.

In 2010, Imperial Sugar reached a settlement with OSHA and agreed to pay about $6 million in penalties after the agency said it found 124 safety violations at the plant. A year later, OSHA asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to consider whether criminal charges should be filed.

Tarver said federal agents looked at investigators’ reports, company documents and employee statements over a period of more than 10 years preceding the explosion. Not only was there insufficient evidence that the company “willfully” violated OSHA standards, there was no federal criminal statute that specifically addressed the safety of workers within the sugar industry at the time of the explosion, the U.S. attorney said.

The plant, which employs about 350 people, was rebuilt in 2009 with new safety measures to reduce the presence of sugar dust.

Despite the absence of criminal charges, Imperial Sugar, whose brands include Imperial, Dixie Crystals, and Holly sugar, still faces civil lawsuits in the accident.

Savannah attorney Bart Turner told the Savannah Morning News, “Thank goodness for the civil justice system. You can’t count on the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” He added, “This isn’t going to slow us down one bit.”

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