20 years ago to this day – The Economic impact of sugar factory explosion in 1996

This is a good case study as in  2008 Georgia sugar refinery explosion was an industrial disaster that occurred on February 7, 2008 in Port WentworthGeorgiaUnited States. 14 people were killed and 40 injured when a dust explosion occurred at a sugar refinery owned by Imperial Sugar. Dust explosions had been an issue of concern among United States authorities since three fatal accidents in 2003, with efforts made to improve safety and reduce the risk of recurrence.  They claimed not to be aware of the destructive properties of Sugar dust!

The refinery was large and old, featuring outdated construction methods, and these factors are believed to have contributed to the fire’s severity. The origin of the explosion has been narrowed down to the center of the factory. It was believed to have occurred in a basement beneath storage silos. Investigations conducted by the Department of Justice ruled out deliberate criminal activity in 2013.[1][2]

As a result of the disaster, new safety legislation was proposed. The local economy declined because the factory was closed down. Imperial intended to rebuild it and return to production by the end of 2008, with replacement buildings to be completed by summer the following year. Some victims filed legal suits for damages against the owner and the company hired to clean up the refinery. Imperial said that the explosion was the main reason for a major loss in the first quarter of 2008.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board released its report on the incident in September 2009, saying that the explosion had been “entirely preventable.”[3] Investigations by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also concluded that sugar dust was the fuel for an explosion that could have been prevented.[1] By September 2010, 44 suits had been filed in Chatham County Court against Imperial Sugar and/or its cleaning contractor. Eighteen have been settled.


Twenty years ago on July 20, 1996, a thunderous explosion put Scottsbluff in the national spotlight.

Shortly after 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, a spark in machinery ignited a cloud of fine sugar dust suspended inside a storage silo at the Western Sugar plant. The resulting fireball, described by witnesses as 600 feet across, was accompanied by a blast that rocked nearby buildings and was heard 10 miles away.

“We had reports of a bomb, fireworks, a cruise missile and lightning all hitting the factory,” said Deputy State Fire Marshal Jerry Larson in the wake of the disaster. “That’s understandable given the suddenness and size of the explosion.”

The silo was one in a cluster of eight on the north side of the factory complex. The explosion set off an instant chain reaction that left seven of them flattened, toppled in every direction like petals of a flower. The only one that remained, heavy with a load of sugar, had been lifted from its foundation and was listing dangerously.

A driver on nearby 21st Street felt his vehicle swept sideways to the other side of the street. The walls of the adjacent administrative offices were ripped away. Cars were buried in the rubble.

During that shift, 31 workers were on duty, including 25 who were inside at the time of the blast. One was missing and later found dead. Eleven were initially taken to Regional West Medical Center, with four remaining hospitalized in the days after the explosion.

Of the survivors, many were just returning from a break.

“Someone was sure looking out for us,” said boiler operator Henry Huber, who felt portions of the building crumbling around him. “The timing, with the break and all — almost everyone was fortunate.”

Sharon Santero was sitting outside the building when the blast occurred. Silos landed on both sides of where she had been sitting at a picnic table, which helped to shield her from the debris.

“It was really loud,” she said. “When I turned to look, the pressure of the blast pushed me back and under the picnic table.”

Economic impact of sugar factory explosion in 1996 echoed for years

Sugar dust fell in a shower, igniting small fires. Sam Meloney of Gering, arriving for work, grabbed a fire extinguisher and started putting out the blazes and shutting down production equipment

“By the time I got outside, people were already being taken away in ambulances,” he said.

Families of the injured gathered at the hospital. Other workers met at Roosevelt Elementary School, where they learned that one of their co-workers, Gene Juergens, was missing and that the full workforce of 140 would be laid off indefinitely.

The factory’s parent company, London-based Tate and Lyle, owned plants in Nebraska, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. A now-closed factory in Bayard was still in operation at the time. The company’s Mitchell plant recently had been shut down. Factory manager Owen Palm reported that processing equipment escaped major damage; packaging equipment was damaged but remained workable. He expressed confidence about rebuilding and repairing the factory before the fall sugar beet harvest.

The damage was estimated at $30 million for the company, with an impact of more than twice that for the local economy. State and local officials mobilized, promising help for workers and the company. Other cities offered assistance, including a specially trained team from the Lincoln Fire Department that helped in the search for Juergens. Teamsters Local 300 offered counseling and opened a donation fund to help workers. The Red Cross fed survivors and rescue crews. Media reporters and photographers from across the United States converged on the plant as the disaster became a national story.

In time, a new corporate office with distinctive rounded corners rose atop the foundations of the silos lost in the disaster, their replacements erected nearby. The investment in improvements cemented the factory’s future. Eight years after the explosion, more than 1,000 sugar beet growers in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana united to purchase the company, founded a century earlier as Great Western Sugar, and formed a grower-owned cooperative that still provides a profitable market for irrigated sugarbeets grown in western Nebraska.

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