2008 Georgia sugar refinery explosion

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2008 Georgia sugar refinery explosion
Time 7:00 pm (local time)
Date February 7, 2008 (2008-02-07)
Location Port Wentworth, Georgia, United States
Deaths 14 killed
Injuries 40 injured

The 2008 Georgia sugar refinery explosion was an industrial disaster that occurred on February 7, 2008 in Port Wentworth, Georgia, United States. Fourteen people were killed and 42 injured when a dust explosion occurred at a sugar refinery owned by Imperial Sugar. Dust explosions had been an issue of concern among United States authorities since three fatal accidents in 2003, with efforts made to improve safety and reduce the risk of recurrence. However, a safety board had criticized these efforts as inadequate.

This refinery was large and old, featuring outdated construction methods. This is thought to have contributed to the fire's severity. The origin of the explosion has been narrowed down to the center of the factory. It was believed to have occurred in a basement beneath storage silos. Investigations ruled out deliberate criminal activity but continued through 2008 and 2009.

As a result of the disaster, new safety legislation was proposed. The local economy slumped because the factory was closed down. Imperial intended to rebuild it and return to production by the end of 2008, with replacement buildings to be completed by summer the following year. Some victims filed legal suits for damages against the owner and the company hired to clean it the refinery. Imperial said that the explosion was the main reason for a major loss in the first quarter of 2008.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board released its report on the incident in September 2009, saying that the explosion had been "entirely preventable."[1] By September 2010, 44 suits had been filed in Chatham County Court against Imperial Sugar and/or its cleaning contractor. Eighteen had been settled.[2]

Background[edit]

The sugar refinery was a four-story structure on the bank of the Savannah River. Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas, had bought it and its brand name in 1997 from a previous local owner. Known since construction as the Dixie Crystals refinery, the refinery was the main employer in the town of 3,500 prior to the disaster.[3][4][5]

It was constructed in 1916 by 400 people who were moved from Louisiana specifically for the purpose, and opened the following year. Imperial bought the refinery together with Savannah Foods to form part of a national supply and distribution network to meet demand from businesses such as Piggly Wiggly, General Mills and Wal-Mart.[4] The refinery sat on a 160 acres (0.65 km2; 0.25 sq mi) site and was spread across 872,000 square feet (81,000 m2) of it.[5][6] This network was the second largest in the US.[7] Workers described the factory as antiquated, with much of the machinery dating back more than 28 years. They said the site was kept operating because it had good access to rail and shipping links for transport.[5]

In the last full fiscal year before the disaster, which ended on September 30, 2007, the facility refined 14.51 million hundredweight of sugar, 9% of the nation's requirements, compared to Imperial's Gramercy, Louisiana refinery, which refined 11.08 million hundredweight of sugar in the same time period. 90% of the raw sugar supplied to the facility came from overseas in that year, and the company expected the "vast majority" to come in from abroad in the year of the explosion as well.[4][8]

In the time leading up to the explosion, Imperial Sugar had run into financial difficulties. In the fiscal year ending September 30, 2007, sales fell 8%, while profits were down 50% from that year's fourth quarter, and stock also down by half since April 2007. The last two annual reports by Imperial before the explosion said that any damage to the facility at Port Wentworth would "have a material effect on the company's business, financial condition, results of operations and cash flows."[4]

Meanwhile, in 2004 the U.S. Chemical Safety Board conducted a study into the risks presented by dust explosions after three fatal accidents in the year before. The West Pharmaceutical Services explosion killed six persons, the CTA Acoustics fiberglass insulation manufacturing plant explosion killed seven, and the Hayes Lemmerz automotive parts plant explosion killed one, prompting the report. The Board found that dust explosions posed a severe risk and made a number of recommendations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These had been partly implemented by 2008. The Board continued to be concerned about the potential for further fatal accidents up until Imperial's refinery was the scene of an explosion.[9]

Explosion and emergency response[edit]

An overview of the fire damage to the refinery.

The explosion occurred at 7:00 p.m. local time in what was initially believed to be a room where sugar was bagged by workers. Witnesses from across the Savannah River in South Carolina reported seeing flames shoot up several stories high.[3] There were 112 employees on-site at the time.[10] The explosion occurred in the center of the refinery, where bagging and storage facilities were fed completed product by a network of elevators and conveyor belts. Many of the buildings here were six to eight stories high with narrow gaps in between.[5]

Ambulances responded to the scene from across twelve counties,[3] and firefighters from three.[5] The United States Coast Guard closed off the river in the area, and a firefighting tug boat was used to douse the resulting fire from the river. A helicopter was used to search the river for anyone who may have been thrown into it by the blast.[3] Refinery workers were brought in to assist with search and rescue operations, as emergency services personnel were unfamiliar with the plant's layout.[5]

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency alerted local hospitals to prepare for up to 100 casualties. A doctor at nearby Memorial Health hospital described patients arriving at an emergency triage as varying in condition from suffering minor burns to their hands to having received 80-90% burns, with many in critical condition,[3] and one with 95% burns. The victims' ages ranged from 18 to 50. Many victims were placed in artificial comas because they were on life support systems.[11] Eight were transported by helicopter to the specialized Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia, about an hour away.[3][8] Five of those injured later died there while receiving treatment.[12] As of June 24, 2008, four remained at the August center, three of whom were in critical condition.[7]

A church close to the refinery was used as a point for families seeking information on relatives employed at the facility. So many people turned up that police requested that each family send only one representative.[3] At the close of the day of the explosion, six people were missing, with no confirmed deaths.[3] Overnight, several deep-seated fires were uncovered and firefighting continued the next day.

Most of the three-mile (5 km) stretch of river that had previously been closed was reopened without restriction, although a patrol remained in place to enforce a safety zone. The river restrictions delayed one outgoing vessel and two incoming ones. There was also a minor oil spill originating from equipment at the refinery's unoccupied and rarely used dock.[8]

The explosion seriously weakened the structure of the facility, leaving it highly unstable,[3] and there was extensive smoke damage.[8] The packaging area was totally destroyed and in all, 12% of the refinery was demolished by the explosion.[4] Removal of debris began the day after the accident, with assistance from structural engineers. The six missing persons were all found dead that day,[8] three of them in tunnels running beneath the factory.[13] The final death toll was thirteen.[4] It was the first major shutdown of a US sugar refinery since American Sugar Refining Inc.'s Domino Sugar shut down its plant in Chalmette, Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.[8]

By February 14, 2008, the worst of the fire had been extinguished. The 100 foot (30 m) sugar storage silos remained alight despite attempts to put the fire out by dousing them with thousands of gallons of water from a helicopter. Specialist crews and equipment were called in to complete work tackling the smoldering, molten sugar in the silos. At this time, seven bodies had been recovered, and an eighth person had died in the hospital.[14]

Investigation[edit]

The explosion was determined to have occurred in this building and two of the three silos visible behind it.

The location of the explosion was quickly established as a building used to store refined sugar prior to packaging it and two of three 100 foot (30 m) tall, 18 inches (46 cm) thick reinforced concrete storage silos adjacent to it, as pictured.[7][9] Heavy equipment had to be used to shore up the partially collapsed structure before firefighters could enter it to search for victims, as well as several other 'key' areas.[11] Within 24 hours, the explosive substance was identified as sugar dust.[8]

Federal investigations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) were launched and are continuing. They interviewed witnesses, checked documentation, and conducted on-scene examination of the plant.[4] OSHA arrived within two hours and the CSB within 48 hours.[10] Other brief investigations were conducted by state firefighters and police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, but these were ended quickly after confirming there was no evidence of the explosion and fire having been deliberately started.[9] In a press conference held on February 17, 2008, one of the six members of the CSB team said that the explosion showed the ongoing risk from dust explosions despite their report highlighting the matter in 2004.[9]

Investigators were unable to enter the silos as OSHA ruled them to be too hazardous after the explosion. They were only able to access the area after the silos were demolished. By the time this took place, four months after the disaster, investigators believed that the explosion started in a basement area beneath the silos, from which sugar was fed up to the packaging building on conveyor belts.[7]

The factory's outdated construction materials and methods are believed to have contributed to the severity of the blaze. The ceiling was of wooden tongue and groove design. The creosote used throughout was known as “fat lighter,” because of the fire risk it posed.[5]

OSHA's final report was scheduled for release by August 7, six months after the accident.[7]

Aftermath[edit]

Imperial's refinery in Louisiana was shut down by the company six weeks after the Port Wentworth disaster, over fears a similar explosion would occur there. It was kept from operating for more than a week. OSHA fined Imperial $36,000 over safety legislation violations at that plant.[4]

The Georgia plant's 371 workers continued to receive payment from Imperial, and 275 were rehired to assist with cleanup and demolition of parts of the refinery that could not be salvaged. Work began on April 18, 2008 after Imperial's board confirmed their intention to rebuild. The plan was for the plant to return to sugar refining by the end of 2008.[4][15] Demolition of the sugar silos was conducted on June 24, 2008 with a wrecking ball.

A replacement packaging building and new sugar silos were intended to be completed by summer 2009. During demolition, 2,800,000 pounds (1,300,000 kg) of fire-hardened sugar were recovered from one silo, and another 500,000 pounds (230,000 kg) from a second. The company hoped to recycle the product for ethanol production.[7]

In the first quarter of 2008, Imperial posted a $15.5 million loss, which they said was primarily due to the explosion.[7] Port Wentworth suffered an economic depression after the accident, with local businesses losing many customers.[4]

Within a month of the accident OSHA, fearing that relevant employers may be unaware their facilities presented a risk of dust explosions, sent a letter to 30,000 employees to alert them to the danger of a similar explosion occurring. OSHA also proposed the Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act of 2008, a new bill aimed at introducing regulations to reduce the risk of dust explosions.[10] In March 2008 Raquel Islas, a female worker whose arms were burnt, sued Savannah company Stokes Contracting, who had a contract to clean the factory. In April 2008 the widow of Shelathia Harvey also sued Stokes, as well as Savannah Foods. It was a wholly owned subsidiary after Imperial bought them out and the factory was still owned in its name.[16]

The Chemical Safety Board released its report in September 2009, saying the explosion had been "entirely preventable."[1] It noted that the sugar industry had been aware of the risk of dust explosions since 1926. Specifically, internal company memorandums by managers in 1967 expressed their concern about the potential of explosions from sugar dust. Imperial Sugar had recently made construction changes that enabled the accumulation of sugar dust. It had never practiced evacuation procedures, and the lack of emergency lighting meant that people were confined to dark hallways and tunnels at the time of the explosions.[1]

Victims of the disaster continued to file claims against Imperial Sugar and its cleaning contractor. By September 2010, 44 civil suits had been filed in Chatham County Court in relation to the explosion, and eighteen had been settled.[2] The state appeals court rejected an effort by defendants' attorneys for a pre-trial appeal in two related cases in an effort to limit damages.[2]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Shaila Dewan, "Report Cites Lack of Precautions in 2008 Sugar Plant Fire", New York Times, 24 September 2009, accessed 14 October 2013
  2. ^ a b c Jan Skutch, "Appellate court rejects pre-trial appeal in Imperial Sugar case", Savannah Now, 23 September 2009, accessed 14 October 2013
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Dozens hurt in Georgia sugar refinery explosion". CNN. 2008-02-08. Archived from the original on 2008-06-11. Retrieved 2008-06-17. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Chapman, Dan (2008-04-13). "Sugar refinery near Savannah determined to rebuild". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved 2008-06-19. [dead link]
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Dewan, Shaila (2008-02-09). "Lives and a Georgia Community’s Anchor Are Lost". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  6. ^ "Crews still battling refinery blast; toll rises to 8". USA Today. 2008-02-14. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Ga. sugar refinery demolishing blasted silos". Associated Press. 2008-06-24. Retrieved 2008-06-26. [dead link]
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "Imperial Sugar Refinery Blast Kills 6, Injures 42". Bloomberg. 2008-02-08. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  9. ^ a b c d Press Release"Statement of CSB Investigations Manager Stephen Selk, P.E., Updating the Public on the Investigation of the Imperial Sugar Company Explosion and Fire, Savannah, Georgia". U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. 2008-04-17. Archived from the original on 2008-05-13. Retrieved 2008-06-21. 
  10. ^ a b c Testimonial record on the"Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act of 2008". Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 2008-03-12. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  11. ^ a b "Death toll rises at Georgia refinery". CNN. 2008-02-09. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  12. ^ "Sugar plant explosion near Savannah in Port Wentworth, GA". WSAV-TV. 2008-02-12. Retrieved 2008-06-22. [dead link]
  13. ^ "Imperial Sugar Refinery Blast in Port Wentworth, Ga. Blamed for Three Deaths, Several Still Missing". TransWorldNews. 2008-02-08. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  14. ^ "Death toll in Georgia refinery blast rises to eight". MSNBC. 2008-02-14. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  15. ^ Press Release"Imperial Sugar Board Affirms Intention to Rebuild Damaged Areas of Its Port Wentworth Refinery". Imperial Sugar. 2008-04-18. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  16. ^ "Widow files lawsuit in refinery explosion". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 2008-04-05. Retrieved 2008-06-27. [dead link]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 32°08′38″N 81°08′38″W / 32.144°N 81.144°W / 32.144; -81.144