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Imperial Sugar Shuts Down Louisiana Plant

Tue, 03/18/2008 - 5:55am
Cain Burdeau, Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- More than a month after an explosion killed 13 workers at its Georgia sugar refinery, the Imperial Sugar Co. has shut down a section of its Louisiana plant out of concern for combustible dust.
 
Imperial said it closed down its powdered sugar operations at its Gramercy facility on Friday after inspectors with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found potentially combustible dust there.
 
''There was a very thick dust level,'' said Edwin G. Foulke Jr., the assistant secretary of Labor for OSHA. The dust, he said, caused an ''imminent danger situation.''
 
Experts believe the Feb. 7 blast at Imperial's Georgia refinery outside Savannah was caused by ignited dust. The disaster has prompted OSHA to inspect hundreds of plants where combustible dust is a workplace hazard.
 
On Friday, OSHA posted a notice warning workers at the Gramercy plant of the ''imminent danger.''
 
''The company agreed to withdraw the employees and deactivate the equipment'' for dust removal and cleanup, Foulke said. He said it would probably take several days to clean up the dust.
''I'm a little bit disappointed'' with Imperial Sugar given what happened in Savannah, Foulke said.
 
John Sheptor, the president and CEO of Imperial Sugar, said the company is ''proceeding with an abundance of caution at the Gramercy facility'' because of the Georgia refinery explosion.
 
He said OSHA's inspections have helped the company ''develop improved practices for sugar dust management.''
 
Sheptor said the facility employs 275 people and about 100 contractors but the shutdown should have ''no direct impact to personnel.''
 
''There's nobody assigned directly to that unit. A group of people are responsible for that area,'' Sheptor said. ''It should just have an impact on the potential supply to customers and we are managing that.''
 
Sheptor said the area in question represents less than 6 percent of the plants output.
 
''This is a relatively small part of the plant,'' he noted. ''We're hopeful this will be resolved in next few days.''
 
Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas, is a major processor and refiner of sugar.
 
OSHA has come under fire for failing to adopt safety rules proposed in 2006 by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board to prevent dust explosions.
 
''It's unfortunate that it's taken so long for OSHA to pay attention to this incredibly dangerous situation in these plants,'' said Jill Cashen, a spokeswoman for United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The union represents workers at the Gramercy plant.
 
Associated Press writer Jesse Holland in Washington contributed to this report.
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