When sugar dust ignites: questions shadow Ga. blast

By: By RUSS BYNUM, Associated Press Writer
By: By RUSS BYNUM, Associated Press Writer

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - A year after he escaped badly burned from a huge blast at the nation's second-largest sugar refinery, Jamie Butler still needs physical therapy once a day to stretch the skin grafts on his arms, hands and legs.

He still takes painkillers. And he needs steroid injections to reduce scarring on his face, now covered by a black mask that applies healing pressure to the skin.

The 26-year-old cannot forget what happened at the Imperial Sugar refinery on Feb. 7, 2008. And he wonders why his older brother, who worked beside him filling bags of sugar, had to die when fine sugar dust exploded.

"I've been thinking about my brother all the time," said Butler, who was burned over almost half his body. "I know it could've been prevented."

Despite the outcry after the blast, which killed 14 people and injured 40 others, the U.S. still lacks federal regulations requiring industrial plants to prevent the buildup of fine dust particles that can form explosive clouds in confined areas.

Federal regulators concluded that the explosion and fire at the refinery in Port Wentworth, just west of Savannah, was caused by a spark that ignited sugar dust like gunpowder.

The blast set off secondary dust explosions that turned the packaging plant where Butler worked with his 35-year-old brother, John Calvin Butler Jr., into fiery rubble.

Last summer, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed $8.7 million in fines against Imperial Sugar and cited the company for 211 safety violations at its two refineries, here in coastal Georgia and in Gramercy, La.

OSHA has a dust regulation from the 1980s covering grain and plant silos. But another federal agency says that's not enough because food processors, wood manufacturers and other industries face the same risks.

In 2006, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial accidents, called on OSHA to close that gap by adopting a new combustible dust regulation. Over the past three decades, the board says, about 300 dust explosions have killed more than 120 workers nationwide.

OSHA opposed a new industrial dust standard following the Georgia explosion. The agency argued existing regulations on plant cleanliness and maintenance - which it used to cite Imperial Sugar - have been sufficient.

Members of Congress tried to force OSHA to adopt a new standard by law last year after the Imperial Sugar blast. A bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate amid a promised presidential veto.

Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., co-sponsored the failed dust bill. He's trying again with a new version introduced Wednesday. He calls the risk of future catastrophes too great for Congress to ignore.

"While the likelihood of it happening is very small, the enormity of the damage when it does happen is huge," he said. "It's like playing Russian roulette with a gun that has 1,000 chambers in it."

The National Fire Protection Association, which has had voluntary standards for preventing dust explosions since the 1930s, said it endorses a federal regulation to make such measures mandatory.

"To go through and find the bits and pieces of those existing regulations that OSHA would say are now applicable to a dust problem, that's very difficult for typical employers," said Guy Colonna, an association official.

Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas, is contesting the OSHA fines as it moves ahead with a $200 million project to build new storage silos and a 75,000 square-foot packaging plant to replace those destroyed. The plant resumed refining liquid sugar in November and is expected to begin granulated sugar production later this year.

As reconstruction continues, Latacia Johnson Bynes said she still wants answers as to why the dust was allowed to accumulate in deadly levels.

Bynes' father, Earl Johnson Sr., 56, was working on the second floor of the packaging plant. His body was identified a week after the blast, using medical records.

"I know life at the plant must go on," Bynes said. "They can pick up and rebuild. But I can't rebuild my dad."

John Sheptor, the company's CEO, said Imperial Sugar is following the National Fire Protection Association's voluntary dust guidelines in its new buildings. Those call for safety features such as a minimum of raised surfaces where dust can collect.

"I think the ultimate objective here is to establish an example to the industry for others to follow," Sheptor said.

On Saturday's anniversary, the company plans to dedicate a memorial park on refinery grounds where bricks from the blast site are laid out forming a cross. A bronze sculpture also has been shaped as a pair of hands releasing 14 doves - one for each worker killed.

"It's the right thing to do," Sheptor said. "There has been a lot of pain and suffering."

Imperial Sugar faces more than 30 lawsuits filed against its subsidiaries by injured employees and relatives of the workers. Sheptor declined comment on the litigation.

Butler and Bynes are among those suing, as is survivor Lawrence Manker Jr.

Manker, now 20, spent six months in a medically induced coma as doctors treated burns to 85 percent of his body. In October, he became the last Imperial Sugar patient to be discharged from a hospital burn unit.

Manker said he still experiences nausea and struggles to regulate his body temperature, often too hot or too cold. A former football player who once bench-pressed 280 pounds, he now works out with 5-pound weights and his mother helps him dress.

"Every day is a better day - I see myself gaining (by) degrees in my stretching ability. I'm getting better at putting my clothes on," Manker said. "I just thank God ... that I've seen another year."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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