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Senators to take up combustible dust issue
Hearing comes on heels of OSHA's severe penalty of Imperial Sugar
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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., reacted to the findings by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that Imperial Sugar “egregiously and willfully” violated safety and health standards by allowing excessive amounts of combustible dust to collect in its Port Wentworth facility.

“I saw the absolute devastation of the tragic explosion at the Imperial Sugar facility firsthand. From the start of this investigation, it has remained my position that it is Congress’s job to understand fully the fundamental cause of this disaster so we can help prevent future tragedies,” said Isakson. “OSHA’s citation that Imperial Sugar ‘egregiously and willfully’ violated safety and health standards is a severe charge. We will hold a hearing in the Senate next week to get all the facts on the table. I look forward to hearing Imperial Sugar explain its position and to the testimony from all of our witnesses.”

“These are very serious charges, and the families of those whose lives were lost and those who were injured as a result deserve answers,” said Chambliss. “Sen. Isakson and I requested an investigation into this matter and next week’s hearing is critically important as we move forward in the process of determining why this happened and what measures can be taken to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Isakson and Chambliss were briefed Friday by OSHA officials on the details of each violation.

The Feb. 7 explosion at the refinery resulted in the deaths of 13 people and injured dozens more. The agency proposed $5,062,000 in penalties for safety violations at the Port Wentworth facility. OSHA also proposed $3,715,000 in penalties for safety violations at an Imperial Sugar refinery in Gramercy, La.

"I am outraged that this company would show a complete disregard for its employees' safety by knowingly placing them in an extremely dangerous work environment," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Edwin G. Foulke Jr. "What is even worse is that a month after the devastating catastrophe in Port Wentworth that claimed the lives of 13 people, this company had done little to ensure abatement of the combustible dust hazards at its other plant. If OSHA investigators had not inspected and posted an imminent danger notice regarding areas at the second plant, the same thing could have happened again."

Imperial Sugar reviewed OSHA findings, and CEO John Sheptor issued a sharp objection.

“Based on this review, we have filed with OSHA a 'notice of contest' of the citations, in which we challenge the allegations of the citations, the characterization of the violations and the penalties proposed,” he said in a prepared statement. “In short, we believe that the facts do not merit the allegations made. As we go forward, we will continue to focus on the safety of our employees and our contractors, not only as we rebuild our Port Wentworth, Georgia facility, but also at our Gramercy, Louisiana and Ludlow, Kentucky facilities.”

On Feb. 15, Isakson and Chambliss met with Imperial Sugar employees and the families of workers who died or suffered injuries. Isakson and Chambliss also toured the exterior of the facility.

On Feb. 13, Isakson and Chambliss sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the interim executive of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, urging them to begin a comprehensive investigation of the Feb. 7 explosion. The letter was also signed by Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. The OSHA investigation is now complete.

Isakson and Murray are the ranking member and chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, which has jurisdiction over OSHA. The subcommittee will hold a hearing on combustible dust Tuesday at 10 a.m. in Room 430 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Chambliss also will participate in the hearing. No legislation will be considered at the hearing.

OSHA Administrator Ed Foulke will present his agency’s findings. Also testifying will be U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board Chairman and CEO John Bresland, National Fire Protection Agency Senior Chemical Engineer Amy Spencer and Richard Prugh of Chilworth Technologies, who is an expert on combustible dust. Graham Graham, vice president of operations for Imperial Sugar, will testify on his own behalf.