July 29, 2008 -- A top executive turned whistleblower will testify on Capitol Hill today about the dangerous conditions he says he saw at a Georgia sugar refinery where a deadly combustible dust explosion killed 13 workers in February.
Graham H. Graham, Vice President for Operations for the Imperial Sugar Company (ISC), will testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing about what he says was a failure of his company to address the dangers before the blast. The hearing is also expected to feature never-before-seen photos of conditions in the Port Wentworth, GA plant prior to the explosion, according to a committee spokesperson.
The hearing will be held by the Senate Subcommitee on Employment and Workplace Safety and will also examine whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is doing enough to protect workers from the perils of combustible dust.
The hearings come just four days after OSHA proposed the third-largest penalty in its history, recommending multiple fines totaling $8,777,500 for alleged violations inspectors found at two ISC plants in Georgia and Louisiana.
According to an OSHA news release on the proposed fines, inspections of the Port Wentworth facility where the blast occurred, as well as of a plant in Gramercy, La., discovered that large buildups of such dust remained despite the accident. The fine against ISC, divided between $5,062,000 for Port Wentworth and $3,715,500 for Gramercy, cites the company for more than 100 safety violations related to the continued presence of the dust.
In response to OSHA's actions ISC released a statement Friday, saying, "We challenge the allegations of the citations, the characterization of the violations and the penalties proposed. In short, we believe that the facts do not merit the allegations made."
If the proposed fine stands, it would be the third largest ever imposed in OHSA's 37-year history. IMC fertilizer was hit by an 11,270,000 penalty in 1991 and three years ago BP Products incurred a fine of $21,361,500.
Matthew Zimmerman is a 2008 Carnegie Fellow at ABC News. He is a student at the University of Missouri Graduate School of Journalism.