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Monday, February 7, 2011 - 12:00pm

Sugar Explosion Still An Issue Three Years On

Monday marks the third anniversary of one of the worst industrial disasters in Georgia history.

There are still several ongoing and potential cases against the Imperial Sugar company.

On February 7th, 2008, an explosion ripped through the company's sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, near Savannah.

The blast and insuing fire eventually killed fourteen people.

Since then, the company agreed to pay millions of dollars in fines and has settled some lawsuits.

But other lawsuits remain.

"The litigation is far from over," says Savannah attorney Mark Tate. "We have a number of defendants remaining."

Specifically, companies affiliated with Imperial Sugar, but not part of its corporate structure, face litigation.

Federal workplace safety officials have said that Imperial Sugar "willfully" harmed workers.

And under the law, that means company officials could be held liable through criminal prosecution.

The U.S. Attorney's office is said to be considering criminal charges but Tate believes that jail time is unlikely.

"In terms of doing prison time, that's not going to happen," Tate says. "Paying a criminal level fine, absolutely that could happen."

On the political side, efforts to strengthen federal rules for combustible dust still face dim prospects in Congress.

Congressman John Barrow (D-Savannah) introduced legislation that passed the U.S. House in 2009.

But it failed in the U.S. Senate.

That was when Democrats controlled both chambers.

Today, Republicans control the House and Democrats are fewer in the Senate.

"Worker safety is an issue that transcends partisan lines," Barrow says. "It's time to act together, pass this bill, and send it to the President to sign."

Barrow says he plans to introduce the legislation again this week.

"Thousands of other factory workers are at risk of a similar disaster," Barrow says. "It's still important that other employers improve their safety programs as well."

Imperial Sugar has made steps to improve safety, a fact company official stressed on the anniversary.

"We've made tremendous progress," says George Muller, Imperial Sugar's Vice President of Human Resources. "This is a day of rememberance and a day of thought and compassion."

Those thoughts will be expressed publicly at a memorial planned for Monday evening at St. Philip AME Church in Savannah.