PORT WENTWORTH — Federal lawmakers Friday hoped to ensure the kind of explosion that damaged the Imperial Sugar refinery and killed nine people so far will be less likely to happen in the future.
U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and Rep. John Barrow (D-Savannah) visited the plant and with workers and family members Friday morning, pledging to help the company rebuild and make sure people know how and why the blast happened.
Isakson is the ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety
“I have pledged to Imperial Sugar and its families the full resources of that subcommittee to answer all the questions that need to be answered and as quickly as possible to release the site for reconstruction,” he said.
Federal inspectors are on site and investigators from the Chemical Safety Board have been at the refinery for several days. Lawmakers wouldn’t speculate what changes might be made to future regulations.
“We’re going to wait until the facts come out,” Isakson said. “Metal dust can ignite and explode. There are all kinds of dust explosions. There are any number of grain elevators out West that have the same problem. Sugar is cellulose which is eventually wood, so wood dust has the same capability to ignite and explode.
“There have been standards and getting the answers to the questions why may enhance those standards. When the facts of this case come out, there may be recommendations on those standards.”
The Chemical Safety Board offered recommendations to the U.S. Department of Labor on new dust rules in 2006, but they were not adopted.
“When they get answers to causes, it may increase future regulations,” Isakson said.
Said Barrow: “It may be that we learn things we were not aware of that have always been out there and if we don’t take steps, might happen again.”
The lawmakers also voiced their support for Imperial Sugar’s commitment to rebuild the refinery once the cleanup and investigation are finished.
“Our job is to make sure the federal government gets in here and does its job in a thorough manner and gets out of the way of the company so they can proceed with reconstructing the facility,” Chambliss said.
They also were struck by what they saw when they toured the plant and by their hour-long meeting with employees and their families at the Port Wentworth gym.
“All of us have been in a war zone,” Chambliss said. “It looked like a burned-out war zone. You can’t help but feel the emotion yourself and see the emotion in the faces of the employees, whether they suffered loss or whether it’s those employees who have worked there 30 and 40 years and their families have been employed there for generations.”
“Our most important reason to be here is to offer our prayers and our support for the families,” Isakson said. “There’s an awful lot of courageous people in the company who risked their lives to go back into that building and rescue others.”