This CSB photo shows the aftermath of the Feb. 7, 2008 explosion and fires at Port Wentworth.

No Surprises in CSB's Port Wentworth Report

Lax housekeeping and equipment that was inadequately designed and maintained allowed the buildup of sugar dust that exploded in February 2008, the board's final draft report concludes. Georgia's two U.S. senators today joined in backing OSHA's plan to issue a combustible dust standard.

The final draft report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board concludes poor housekeeping and equipment that was inadequately designed and maintained allowed the buildup of sugar dust at Imperial Sugar's Port Wentworth, Ga., refinery that exploded Feb. 7, 2008, resulting in 14 workers' deaths. Dust collection equipment, conveyors, and sugar handling equipment was not properly maintained, and the dust and granulated sugar built up throughout the refinery's packing buildings, CSB investigators concluded. CSB released the report last night at a public meeting in Savannah.

Today, Georgia's two U.S. senators, Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, joined in supporting an OSHA combustible dust standard, which OSHA announced last April it would commence work on. "I believe we should embrace the findings of the Chemical Safety Board, including the recommendation that OSHA establish mandatory standards modeled after the National Fire Protection Association guidelines," Isakson said. "Sen. Chambliss and I are working closely with [U.S. Labor] Secretary Solis to ensure that the lessons we have learned as a result of the Port Wentworth disaster will help us prevent future tragedies. The best available science, the experience of stakeholders, and the notice-and-comment process should all play a key role in developing these much-needed regulations."

As often happens in dust explosions, the greatest damage in lives lost and property damage at the plant occurred from secondary dust explosions after an initial blast dislodged dust accumulations and spilled sugar, the report says.

CSB Investigation Supervisor John Vorderbrueggen, P.E., who headed the 19-month investigation, said, "Imperial's management, as well as the managers at the Port Wentworth refinery, did not take effective actions over many years to control dust explosion hazards, even as smaller fires and explosions continued to occur at their plants and other sugar facilities around the country."

Imperial Sugar's response to the report was this statement, released yesterday: "Imperial Sugar and the CSB have collaborated throughout their investigation," said CEO and President John Sheptor. "We appreciate their professionalism and we value their contributions to our combustible dust and safety program. We have worked very hard to make our facilities the safest possible, and will continue to share what we have learned and will learn with the CSB and industry." Included in the CSB's final report are five recommendations to Imperial. "The CSB recommendations are excellent guidance for the control and management of combustible dust. Imperial accepts the CSB recommendations and is working diligently to implement them as part of our safety improvement initiatives. We have listened to the CSB and other experts during the past twenty months and used their guidance in the reduction of risk in all of our operating sites. We hope that all companies that share the risk of combustible dust also will heed the insights of this report," said Sheptor.

The final CSB report will be available on CSB's site. The draft report says the company had not conducted employee evacuation drills, and the explosions and fires disabled most of the emergency lighting, making it difficult for workers to escape. Several survivors of the incident attended the meeting, including an employee who suffered burns to 30 percent of his body and will return to work Oct. 8, Mary Landers of the Savannah Morning News reported today.

The report recommends that Imperial Sugar comply with National Fire Protection Association recommended practices for preventing dust fires and explosions, develop dust training and housekeeping programs, and improve evacuation procedures. The report asks AIB International and the American Bakers Association to develop combustible dust training and auditing materials. Imperial Sugar's insurer, Zurich Services, and an insurance industry trade association are asked to improve their insurance audits for dust hazards and share their dust hazard training materials with clients.

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