SAVANNAH, GA – The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District today released a statement regarding the possibility of federal criminal charges being filed against Imperial Sugar in relation of the 2008 explosion at the refinery. The statement follows in it’s entirety:
“Because of the tragic loss of life, the significant impact on the community, and in view of the substantial public interest in the February 7, 2008 catastrophic explosion that destroyed much of the Imperial Sugar plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia (hereinafter “Imperial Sugar”), the United States Attorney’s Office is hereby making an exception to its policy of not commenting on the status of investigations.
The explosion was investigated by the Chemical Safety Board, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ National Response Team, and the Department of Labor through its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). All three agencies concluded that the explosion had been fueled by sugar dust, which, when suspended in air, can be combustible. OSHA filed civil and administrative citations against Imperial Sugar for the events of February 7, 2008. In July of 2010, OSHA and Imperial Sugar reached a settlement agreement that included the payment of approximately $6 million in administrative penalties by Imperial Sugar. In making this settlement, Imperial Sugar discharged the citations without admitting to any violation.
In June of 2011, the Department of Labor, of which OSHA is a part, made a final referral of the matter to the United States Attorney’s Office for consideration as to whether criminal prosecution could be brought. The United States Attorney’s Office, at the Department of Labor’s request, considered whether the events surrounding the Imperial Sugar catastrophe should be charged as a criminal violation of OSHA’s “general housekeeping” standards. A housekeeping offense is a misdemeanor; there is no felony provision under the statute. In addition, the applicable regulation and statute permit only employers to be charged. If the employer is an individual, the maximum potential penalty is six months in jail and/or a $250,000 fine. If the employer is a corporation, the maximum potential penalty is a $500,000 fine. Officers and employees of a
corporate employer cannot be charged under the statute. Further, when the death of an employee has occurred, any violation of a good housekeeping regulation must be willful in order to support a criminal prosecution. Willfulness is an intentional disregard or plain indifference to the requirements of a regulation. Recklessness or negligence is not sufficient. A failure to do enough, or a failure to be more thorough, which may suffice for civil liability, is not enough to meet the criminal standard.
In response to the OSHA’s referral, the United States Attorney’s Office examined the investigative findings and conclusions of all three federal investigative agencies; statements made by employees, officers, contractors, and consultants of Imperial Sugar; depositions taken by investigative agencies and in the private lawsuits; photographs and laboratory analyses of physical evidence; documents and records of Imperial Sugar; memoranda, emails, and correspondence within Imperial Sugar and between its officers, contractors, and consultants for more than a decade preceding the explosion; and other evidence bearing on Imperial Sugar’s operations, processes, equipment, plant, and safety programs.
After careful review, the United States Attorney concluded that there was insufficient evidence of intentional disregard or plain indifference to the requirements of OSHA’s general housekeeping standards to charge Imperial Sugar with a criminal violation. The United States Attorney further concluded that there was no federal criminal statute specifically addressed to the safety of workers within the sugar industry at the time of the Imperial Sugar explosion.
The conclusions by the United States Attorney are confined entirely to the propriety of federal criminal charges related to the Imperial Sugar explosion. They do not concern and do not affect in any way the resolution of civil suits for damages filed by the families of those killed or persons injured by the Imperial Sugar explosion. Those matters will be resolved by the parties or the civil courts.