Imperial Sugar Restarts Georgia Refinery After Blast

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (AP) -- After 16 months of demolition and reconstruction, Imperial Sugar restarted its Georgia refinery Tuesday to resume making crystal sugar for the first time since a deadly explosion devastated the plant near Savannah.

Employees fired up the boiler at the nation's second-largest sugar refinery Tuesday morning and planned to start shipping liquid sugar by Thursday, followed by their first truckloads of crystal sugar within the next 10 days.

It was a welcome comeback for the factory's 350 workers, who have spent more than a year clearing debris, repainting buildings and cleaning equipment since the Feb. 7, 2008, explosion.

"It's extraordinary," said Jeffrey Hilliard, 48, who runs equipment in the refining process. "Everybody's ecstatic to be back to working and get back to normalcy."

The massive explosion last year killed 14 workers and injured dozens more. Investigators say the blast was caused by accumulated sugar dust that ignited like gunpowder.

The explosion destroyed the factory's packaging plant and devastated the portion of the refinery where liquid sugar is dried to crystal form after being boiled to remove impurities. The plant's three towering storage silos also sustained extensive damage and had to be torn down. The company estimates total rebuilding costs at $200 million.

"It's an exciting day that's meaningful to a number of people," said Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor. "For everybody, it signals the end of the waiting to begin production."

Before any construction could begin, workers cleared out tons of debris from the explosion and cleaned idle machinery clogged with hardened sugar.

The refinery had a brief startup in November to resume production of liquid sugar, used largely by soft-drink makers. Sheptor said it only lasted about six weeks because it wasn't cost effective to make liquid sugar, which accounts for just 10 percent of the refinery's output, with crystal sugar operations still suspended.

The seven-story Georgia refinery can produce 5 million pounds of sugar per day. Sheptor said it will be operating at 40 percent capacity until construction is completed on three new 150-foot storage silos and a new 75,000-square-foot packaging plant.

In the short-term, sugar produced at Port Wentworth will be shipped to industrial food producers. After the new packaging plant is finished in the fall, the refinery will resume bagging sugar for retail sales under the Dixie Crystals brand.

Dozens of employees celebrated with plant managers Tuesday with the ringing of a ceremonial bell before lunch under a sprawling white tent. Debbie Johnson, who works in the plant's store room for machine parts, said she's fortunate considering how many Americans are unemployed.

"We've still got a job when a lot of people don't," said Johnson, whose husband also works at the refinery. "The day after the explosion, after we all met, nobody was sure what was going to happen."

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration proposed $8.7 million in fines against Imperial Sugar in July for safety violations at the Georgia refinery and another plant in Gramercy, La. Imperial Sugar is contesting the fines, the third-largest in OSHA's 40-year history.

OSHA investigators concluded the explosion was most likely caused when a large bucket hauling sugar in a silo elevator broke loose and struck the metal siding, causing a spark that ignited sugar dust accumulated beneath the silos.

Sheptor said the Sugar Land, Texas, based company and OSHA still have a long way to go to reach a resolution.

"I'm hoping that it doesn't take years," Sheptor said. "But it could."

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