U.S. Sugar to purchase Imperial Sugar, upgrades planned for Savannah refinery

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

The privately held Florida agribusiness U.S. Sugar will purchase Imperial Sugar, the Sugar Land, Texas-based company that owns and operates the Port Wentworth sugar refinery that’s served as a staple of Savannah since 1917 and was the site of a 2008 sugar dust explosion that killed more than a dozen people.

The acquisition comes after a U.S. District Court judge in Delaware rejected the federal government's antitrust lawsuit to stop the buyout from happening.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

The merger of the two rival companies was challenged by an antitrust lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice, but a federal judge in Delaware rejected the lawsuit, according to news reports of the deal. The basis for the judge's decision has not been released.

"In an opinion, which will be made public soon, the court rejected the Department of Justice’s claim that the transaction would substantially lessen competition and found that the Government’s theories did not comport with the commercial realities of the sugar industry," U.S. Sugar's press release states.

The acquisition includes Imperial's refinery in Chatham County, just north of the Georgia Port Authority's Garden City terminal. According to a press release, investments and upgrades are planned for the Georgia-25 location.

No changes to the local workforce are being considered, according to the press release.

U.S. Sugar cultivates and refines more than 200,000 acres of sugar cane at its Clewiston, Florida, headquarters — making it the largest producer of sugar in the U.S. The family-owned business has operated for nearly 100 years in southwest Florida, where it also cultivates several produce products via subsidiaries, including citrus and corn.

"Prior to building its Clewiston Refinery in 1998, U.S. Sugar for decades sold and shipped its raw cane sugar to the Savannah refinery it is now acquiring," the press release said.

Credit: THOMAS CORDY, THE PALM BEACH POST

Credit: THOMAS CORDY, THE PALM BEACH POST

Smoke and fire

U.S. Sugar featured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation from the Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that detailed how smoke from the "burns" of sugar cane fields in Florida cause lung and other health issues primarily for the low-income residents and communities of color that work and live in the agricultural centers around southwest Lake Okeechobee. The burning of sugarcane clogs lungs for half of the year, but complaints were long ignored by the government and the companies that cause the smoke.

Credit: John Carrington, Savannah Morning News

Credit: John Carrington, Savannah Morning News

According to U.S. Sugar, the merger will lower the domestic cost of sugar production, thus decreasing the country's reliance on foreign producers.

“By combining our collective strengths, talents and locations—we now become a truly great American sugar company that will better serve all our people, our communities, and our customers throughout the country,” said Robert Buker, CEO of U.S. Sugar.

The Imperial Sugar refinery first opened its doors as Savannah Sugar Refining Corporation in 1917. Then, it was was locally owned by the Oxnard family, who brought 400 Cajun and Creole families from Louisiana to Savannah to work the factory. Once classified as one of the largest companies in the country and known as Savannah Foods, the company remained family-owned until it was acquired by Imperial Holly in 1997. It was acquired again in 2012 by agribusiness behemoth Louis Dreyfus Commodities, a Dutch company.

Credit: John Carrington/Savannah Morning News

Credit: John Carrington/Savannah Morning News

The refinery was the site of a massive sugar dust explosion in 2008 where 14 people were killed and dozens more injured, prompting a federal investigation, local fundraising for the victims and new legislation aimed at making dust-prone refineries safer.

The plant was rebuilt after the 2008 explosion and has continued to operate in Port Wentworth.

U.S. Sugar's press release stated the company will work "as quickly as possible to consummate the transaction, complete the acquisition and bring the Imperial Sugar Company back into American family ownership."

Zoe covers growth and how it impacts communities in the Savannah area. Find her at znicholson@gannett.com, @zoenicholson_ on Twitter, and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: U.S. Sugar to purchase Imperial Sugar, upgrades planned for Savannah refinery


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