February 13, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

Fire suppression experts from a North Carolina firm are providing assistance in Port Wentworth, Georgia at the Imperial Sugar factory.  After the devastating explosion five days ago on Thursday evening, February 7, the fire continues to burn.  Two workers remain missing in the fire and debris.  Another six perished at the scene and 16 remain in critical condition.  Three injured workers have been released from the hospital to continue their recovery at the Joseph M Still Burn Center (More here.)  The clinic has a hopeful motto: “Though not every scar can be removed it is our goal to give our patients back their lives.”  

The Associated Press reports that the sugar-fueled blaze continues to burn despite water drops from a helicopter using a 250-gallon bucket filled from the nearby Savannah River.  Captain Greg Long, a fire chief from a neighboring community who is assisting on the scene said they’ve turned to the North Carolina contractor because the firm has mega pumps that can handle much larger amounts of water.

“I’m talking about over 5,000 gallons a minute.  They also have large amounts of foam and specialized equipment that can, if necessary, penetrate the walls of the silo and put chemicals inside.”

In the last news release offered by Imperial Sugar, the firm’s President and CEO, John Sheptor, 49, said:

“The Imperial family is devastated by this heartbreaking event. Our constant thoughts and prayers are with our injured coworkers, their families and all our associates. We are touched by the level of concern and the outpouring of support shown by the local community and are grateful for the superb response by the local emergency agencies as well as the medical team in Augusta.”

“Currently, we are focusing our efforts on working with authorities on the continued rescue efforts, providing all available support to those receiving medical attention as well as the families of those coworkers who have been affected.”

Mr. Sheptor took over the reigns as President and CEO of Imperial Sugar on January 29, just 10 days before the disaster.  For one year prior, he had served as the firm’s Executive VP and COO.  Previously, he was the COO for the Partnership for Supply Chain Management, a non-governmental organization funded by the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR).

Meanwhile, workers at the Michigan Sugar plant in Bay County, Michigan have reportedly step up measures to control dust at their sugar processing facility.  “This is a reminder that we need to make sure that we take those extra precautions,” said Ray F. VanDriessche, director of community and government relations for grower-owned company.  A group of sugar-beet farmers bought Michigan Sugar in 2002 from Imperial Sugar.  The Michigan-based firm has plants in Bay City, Sebewaing, and Caro, Michigan, and operations also in Findlay and Fremont, Ohio.  “Our hearts and prayers go out to the company’s employees. It’s a very sad thing to see something like this,” VanDriessche said. “But any time you handle sugar, or any kind of grain, you have that dust.” 

Indeed, it seems that everyone— employers, the Chemical Safety Board, OSHA—recognizes the volatile nature of chemical dusts, but who’s responsible seeing to it that the hazard is controlled?? 

Now, these workers are dead and families broken, some workers are scarred and injured for life, and we simply hear “isn’t this heartbreaking?”  What about infuriating? What about inexcusable?  What about criminal? 

I remember a time, not so long ago, when it was considered A-OK for an individual to have a couple of drinks and then get behind the wheel.  I remember my Dad, uncles and neighbors doing it routinely.  But then, something changed—and changed dramatically—because a group of angry mothers joined together as MADD.  Today, drinking and driving is scorned behavior.  Not just unacceptable, but deviant, criminal, inexcusable. 

Who will lead the movement which scorns companies for allowing deaths and disability by combustible dust disasters? or suffocations in confined spaces, or silicosis or scores of other PREVENTABLE workplace hazards? 

Where’s our Howard Beale (Network, 1976): “I’m made as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!!” ??

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