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Imperial Sugar Co. Plant Explosion Investigation Begins

Feb 19, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The fatal Imperial Sugar Co. plant explosion was not the first-such incident at the Port Wentworth, Georgia refinery this year.  According to investigators who arrived at the plant this week, just a few weeks prior to the massive Imperial Sugar Co. plant explosion, a smaller blast occurred when dust became trapped in a piece of safety equipment.  No injuries or damage where caused by that small blast, however, nine people where killed and dozens where injured – some critically—by the larger February 7 explosion.

The Imperial Sugar Co. plant explosion occurred at 7:00 p.m. in a silo where refined sugar was stored before being packaged.  Speculation about the cause of the Imperial Sugar Co. explosion has centered on a “sugar dust explosion”. Plants where a lot of sugar dust is present are classified by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration as “hazardous locations,” the same classification as coal preparation plants and producers of plastics, medicines and fireworks, according to the OSHA Web site. When sugar dust is aerosolized, it can get ionically charged and ignite from just a bit of static electricity. Witnesses in neighboring towns and across the Savannah River in South Carolina reported seeing flames shoot up several stories and hearing the blast.

It took fire crews a week to extinguish the fire sparked by the Imperial Sugar plant explosion.  Mounds of sugary sludge that poured out of two silos had solidified in places, making a sticky, concrete-like mixture that had to be cut with power tools. According to Port Wentworth emergency officials, the fire spread deeper into the sugar silos than first imagined, complicating efforts to put it out. It was initially thought that only the first 3 or 4 feet of sugar in the silo was on fire, but thermal imaging cameras were used to determine that the fire reaches down as deep as 10 or 12 feet.

Sixteen people remain hospitalized in critical or serious condition with severe burns as a result of the Imperial Sugar Co. plant explosion.  Four victims of the Imperial Sugar Co. blast where buried on Saturday, and the remaining dead are expected to be laid to rest this week.

Investigators with the US Chemical Safety Board are on the scene of the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery explosion in Port Wentworth. They're still early into the investigation and they said finding the ignition source that started the explosion may be "impossible."   U.S. Chemical Safety Board Investigations Manager Stephen Selk said earlier this week that investigators are looking into reports that some safety equipment failed a few before the large blast and set off a smaller explosion.  Selk said it was too early to tell if that incident had anything to do with the larger explosion.

Meanwhile about 50 employees returned to work at the Imperial Sugar Co. plant today to help with clean up and the investigation.  The employees have been broken up into three groups, one team is checking out the equipment and extent of the damage, a second team is working with engineers and the Chemical Safety Board as they tour the facility, and the third group is removing finished sugar in the warehouse which the US Department of Agriculture approved and packing it up to ship out.

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