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5/1/2018 2008 Georgia sugar refinery explosion - Wikipedia

Coordinates: 32.144°N 81.144°W

2008 Georgia sugar refinery explosion


The 2008 Georgia sugar refinery explosion was an industrial disaster
2008 Georgia sugar refinery
that occurred on February 7, 2008 in Port Wentworth, Georgia, United States.
explosion
Fourteen people were killed and forty injured when a dust explosion occurred
at a sugar refinery owned by Imperial Sugar. Dust explosions had been an issue Date February 7, 2008
of concern among United States authorities since three fatal accidents in 2003, Time 7:00 p.m., Eastern
with efforts made to improve safety and reduce the risk of recurrence. Standard Time

The refinery was large and old, featuring outdated construction methods, and
Location Port Wentworth,
these factors are believed to have contributed to the fire's severity. The origin
Georgia, United States
of the explosion has been narrowed down to the center of the factory. It was Deaths 14
believed to have occurred in a basement beneath storage silos. Investigations Non-fatal 36
conducted by the Department of Justice ruled out deliberate criminal activity injuries
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.[4]

Contents
Background
Explosion and emergency response
Investigation
Aftermath
Initial response
Reports from OSHA and CSB
Legal issues
See also
References
External links

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Background
The sugar refinery was a four-story structure on the bank of the Savannah River. Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land,
Texas, had bought the refinery and its brand name in 1997 from a previous local owner. Known since construction as the
Dixie Crystal refinery, it was the main employer in the town of 3,500 prior to the disaster.[5]

The refinery was constructed in 1916 by 400 people who were moved from Louisiana specifically for the purpose, and
opened the following year. Imperial bought the refinery together with Savannah Foods to form part of a national supply
and distribution network to meet demand from businesses such as Piggly Wiggly, General Mills and Wal-Mart.[6] The
refinery sat on a 160 acres (0.65 km2; 0.25 sq mi) site and was spread across 872,000 square feet (81,000 m2) of it.[7][8]
This network was the second largest in the US.[9] Workers described the factory as antiquated, with much of the machinery
dating back more than 28 years. They said the site was kept operating because it had good access to rail and shipping links
for transport.[7]

In the last full fiscal year before the disaster, which ended on September 30, 2007, the facility refined 14.51 million
hundredweight of sugar, 9% of the nation's requirements, compared to Imperial's Gramercy, Louisiana, refinery, which
refined 11.08 million hundredweight of sugar in the same time period. 90% of the raw sugar supplied to the facility came
from overseas in that year, and the company expected the "vast majority" to come in from abroad in the year of the
explosion as well.[6][10]

In the time leading up to the explosion, Imperial Sugar had run into financial difficulties. In the fiscal year ending
September 30, 2007, sales fell 8%, while profits were down 50% from that year's fourth quarter, and stock also down by
half since April 2007. The last two annual reports by Imperial before the explosion said that any damage to the facility at
Port Wentworth would "have a material effect on the company's business, financial condition, results of operations and
cash flows".[6]

Meanwhile, in 2004 the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board conducted a study into the risks presented by
dust explosions after three fatal accidents in the year before. The West Pharmaceutical Services explosion killed six
persons, the CTA Acoustics fiberglass insulation manufacturing plant explosion killed seven,[11] and the Hayes Lemmerz
automotive parts plant explosion killed one,[12] prompting the report. Their report showed that between 1980 and 2005,
there had been 281 explosions involving combustible dust, resulting in 119 deaths and 718 injuries.[13] The Board found
that dust explosions posed a severe risk and made a number of recommendations to the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration. These had been partly implemented by 2008. The Board continued to be concerned about the potential
for further fatal accidents up until Imperial's refinery was the scene of an explosion.[14]

Explosion and emergency response


The explosion occurred at 7:00 p.m. local time in what was initially believed to be a room where sugar was bagged by
workers. Witnesses from across the Savannah River in South Carolina reported seeing flames shoot up several stories
high.[15] There were 112 employees on-site at the time.[16] The explosion occurred in the center of the refinery, where
bagging and storage facilities were fed completed product by a network of elevators and conveyor belts. Many of the
buildings here were six to eight stories high with narrow gaps in between.[7]

Ambulances responded to the scene from across twelve counties, and firefighters from three.[7] The United States Coast
Guard closed off the river in the area, and a firefighting tug boat was used to douse the resulting fire from the river. A
helicopter was used to search the river for anyone who may have been thrown into it by the blast.[17] Refinery workers
were brought in to assist with search and rescue operations, as emergency services personnel were unfamiliar with the
plant's layout.[7] Red Cross worker Joyce Baker was among the first to arrive at the scene. She reported that it was like

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"walking into hell", with some of the men she treated having "no skin at
all", while others had skin "just dripping off them".[18]

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency alerted local hospitals to


prepare for up to 100 casualties. A doctor at nearby Memorial Health
hospital described patients arriving at an emergency triage as varying in
condition from suffering minor burns to their hands to having received
80-90% burns, with many in critical condition, and one with 95% burns.
The victims' ages ranged from 18 to 50. Many victims were placed in
An overview of the fire damage to the artificial comas because they were on life support systems.[5] Eight were
refinery. transported by helicopter to the specialized Joseph M. Still Burn Center in
Augusta, Georgia, about an hour away.[5][10] Five of those injured later
died there while receiving treatment.

A church close to the refinery was used as a point for families seeking information on relatives employed at the facility.[19]
So many people turned up that police requested that each family send only one representative. At the close of the day of
the explosion, six people were missing, with no confirmed deaths.[15] Overnight, several deep-seated fires were uncovered
and firefighting continued the next day.

Most of the three-mile (5 km) stretch of river that had previously been closed was reopened without restriction, although a
patrol remained in place to enforce a safety zone. The river restrictions delayed one outgoing vessel and two incoming
ones. There was also a minor oil spill originating from equipment at the refinery's unoccupied and rarely used dock.[10]

The explosion seriously weakened the structure of the facility, leaving it highly unstable, and there was extensive smoke
damage.[10] The packaging area was totally destroyed and in all, 12% of the refinery was demolished by the explosion.[6]
Removal of debris began the day after the accident, with assistance from structural engineers. The six missing persons
were all found dead that day,[10] three of them in tunnels running beneath the factory.[20] The final death toll was
thirteen.[6] It was the first major shutdown of a US sugar refinery since American Sugar Refining Inc.'s Domino Sugar shut
down its plant in Chalmette, Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.[10]

By February 14, 2008, the worst of the fire had been extinguished. The 100 foot (30 m) sugar storage silos remained alight
despite attempts to put the fire out by dousing them with thousands of gallons of water from a helicopter. Specialist crews
and equipment were called in to complete work tackling the smoldering, molten sugar in the silos. At this time, seven
bodies had been recovered, and an eighth person had died in the hospital.[21]

Investigation
The location of the explosion was quickly established as a building used to store refined sugar prior to packaging it and
two of three 100 foot (30 m) tall, 18 inches (46 cm) thick reinforced concrete storage silos adjacent to it, as pictured.[9][14]
According to Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor, the accumulated sugar dust likely acted like gunpowder.[19] Sheptor, who
was in the plant at the time of the explosion, survived only because he was protected by a firewall.[22] Heavy equipment
had to be used to shore up the partially collapsed structure before firefighters could enter it to search for victims.[5] Within
24 hours, the explosive substance was identified as sugar dust.[10]

Federal investigations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board
(CSB) were launched, and they interviewed witnesses, checked documentation, and conducted on-scene examination of
the plant.[6] OSHA arrived within two hours and the CSB within 48 hours.[16] Other brief investigations were conducted by
state firefighters and police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, but these were ended quickly
after confirming there was no evidence of the explosion and fire having been deliberately started.[14] In a press conference
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held on February 17, 2008, one of the six members of the CSB team said
that the explosion showed the ongoing risk from dust explosions despite
their report highlighting the matter in 2004.[14]

Investigators were unable to enter the silos as OSHA ruled them to be too
hazardous after the explosion. They were only able to access the area after
the silos were demolished. By the time this took place, four months after
the disaster, investigators believed that the explosion started in a
basement area beneath the silos, from which sugar was fed up to the
packaging building on conveyor belts.[9] The factory's outdated The explosion was determined to have
construction materials and methods are believed to have contributed to occurred in this building and two of the
the severity of the blaze. The ceiling was of wooden tongue and groove three silos visible behind it.

design. The creosote used throughout was known as “fat lighter,” because
of the fire risk it posed.[7] Interviews of Imperial Sugar employees
conducted by OSHA uncovered a lack of training, as 40 of the workers reported never receiving training on how to exit the
building in an emergency. Only five employees recalled having a fire drill.[23]

Aftermath

Initial response
Imperial's refinery in Louisiana was shut down by the company six weeks after the Port Wentworth disaster, over fears a
similar explosion would occur there. It was kept from operating for more than a week. OSHA fined Imperial $36,000 over
safety legislation violations at that plant.[6]

The Georgia plant's 371 workers continued to receive payment from Imperial, and 275 were rehired to assist with cleanup
and demolition of parts of the refinery that could not be salvaged. Work began on April 18, 2008 after Imperial's board
confirmed their intention to rebuild. The plan was for the plant to return to sugar refining by the end of 2008.[6][24]
Demolition of the sugar silos was conducted on June 24, 2008 with a wrecking ball. A replacement packaging building and
new sugar silos were intended to be completed by summer 2009. During demolition, 2,800,000 pounds (1,300,000 kg) of
fire-hardened sugar were recovered from one silo, and another 500,000 pounds (230,000 kg) from the second. The
company hoped to recycle the product for ethanol production.[9] In the first quarter of 2008, Imperial posted a $15.5
million loss, which they said was primarily due to the explosion.[9] Port Wentworth suffered an economic depression after
the accident, with local businesses losing many customers.[6] Imperial Sugar was purchased in 2012 by the Louis Dreyfus
Group.[1]

Reports from OSHA and CSB


Within a month of the accident, OSHA, fearing that relevant employers may be unaware their facilities presented a risk of
dust explosions, sent a letter to 30,000 employees to alert them to the danger of a similar explosion occurring. OSHA also
proposed the Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act of 2008, a new bill aimed at introducing regulations to
reduce the risk of dust explosions.[25] The bill passed the United States House of Representatives but never passed the
United States Senate.[26] In 2009 OSHA began developing a federal standard for combustible dust.[13] Congress
introduced a bill in 2013 to require OSHA to issue an interim standard based on the voluntary combustible standard set by
National Fire Protection Association[1][27]

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In March 2008 Raquel Islas, a female worker whose arms were burnt, sued Savannah company Stokes Contracting, who
was a contracted construction company. In April 2008 the widow of Shelathia Harvey also sued Stokes, as well as
Savannah Foods. It was a wholly owned subsidiary after Imperial bought them out and the factory was still owned in its
name.[28][29] In August, 2008 Malcolm Frazier succumbed to his injuries, bringing the total number of deaths to fourteen.
Frazier, who suffered burns over 85% percent of his body, died at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center, where he had remained
since the explosion.[30][31][32]

On February 7, 2009, a monument honoring the people lost in the explosion was dedicated at Legacy Park, on the grounds
of the Port Wentworth plant.[33] OSHA fined Imperial $8.8 million in May, 2010 after citing the company for 211
violations at the Port Wentworth plant and a plant in Gramercy, Louisiana. After settlement negotiations the company
agreed to pay $6 million, while admitting no fault.[33][34]

The Chemical Safety Board released its report in September 2009, saying the explosion had been "entirely preventable".[3]
It noted that the sugar industry had been aware of the risk of dust explosions since 1926. Specifically, internal company
memorandums by managers in 1967 expressed their concern about the potential of explosions from sugar dust. Imperial
Sugar had recently made construction changes that enabled the accumulation of sugar dust. It had never practiced
evacuation procedures, and the lack of emergency lighting meant that people were confined to dark hallways and tunnels
at the time of the explosions.[3]

Legal issues
Victims of the disaster continued to file claims against Imperial Sugar and its construction contractor. By September 2010,
44 civil suits had been filed in Chatham County Court in relation to the explosion, and eighteen had been settled.[4] The
state appeals court rejected an effort by defendants' attorneys for a pre-trial appeal in two related cases in an effort to limit
damages.[4] In 2011 Lawrence Manker, Jr., an Imperial Sugar worker who underwent 70 surgeries for burns covering 85%
of his body after the plant explosion, settled his lawsuit with the company for an undisclosed amount. He was the last
victim to leave a hospital burn unit.[35][36]

The Department of Labor requested that Ed Tarver, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, pursue criminal
prosecution against Imperial Sugar and its executives. OSHA cited Imperial with 124 safety violations, finding that the
company acted with "plain indifference to, or intentional disregard for, employee safety and health".[1] Tarver said there
was not enough evidence of intentional disregard or plain indifference to bring criminal charges against Imperial. He also
cited a lack of federal criminal laws specifically related to safety in the sugar industry as a reason for his decision.[1]

See also
U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Occupational safety and health

References
1. Hosier, Fred. "No criminal charges in Imperial Sugar explosion that killed 14 workers." (http://www.safetynewsalert.co
m/no-criminal-charges-in-imperial-sugar-explosion-that-killed-14-workers/) www.safetynewsalert.com, March 1, 2013.
Retrieved January 4, 2015.
2. "Imperial Sugar avoids criminal charges for fatal Georgia plant dust explosion." (http://www.dualdraw.com/Blog/imperi
al-sugar-avoids-criminal-charges-for-fatal-georgia-plant-dust-explosion/) www.dualdraw.com, March 4, 2013.

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3. Dewan, Shaila. "Report Cites Lack of Precautions in 2008 Sugar Plant Fire." (https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/25/u
s/25sugar.html?ref=imperialsugarcompany&_r=0) New York Times, September 24, 2009. Retrieved October 14,
2013.
4. Skutch, Jan. "Appellate court rejects pre-trial appeal in Imperial Sugar case." (http://savannahnow.com/news/2010-09
-23/appellate-court-rejects-pre-trial-appeal-imperial-sugar-case#.UlxPNFM0sW8) Savannah Now, September 23,
2009. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
5. "Death toll rises at Georgia refinery." (http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/02/09/refinery.blast/index.html?iref=storysearch)
CNN, February 9, 2008. Retrieved December 5, 2014.
6. Chapman, Dan."Sugar refinery near Savannah determined to rebuild." (http://www.investorvillage.com/smbd.asp?mb
=10677&mn=5049&pt=msg&mid=4690143) Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 13, 2008. www.investorvillage.com.
Retrieved September 27, 2014.
7. Dewan, Shaila (2008-02-09). "Lives and a Georgia Community's Anchor Are Lost" (https://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/
09/us/09sugar.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1214147101-FDxU4jy1oY6rejeUzZaMJg&oref=slogin). The New York
Times. Retrieved 2008-06-22.
8. "Crews still battling refinery blast; toll rises to 8" (https://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-02-14-refinery-blast_N.
htm). USA Today. 2008-02-14. Retrieved 2008-06-22.
9. Bynum, Russ. "Ga. sugar refinery demolishing blasted silos." (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/economy/2008-
06-24-3701756859_x.htm) USA Today. www.usatoday30.usatoday.com, June 24, 2008. Retrieved September 26,
2014.
10. "Imperial Sugar Refinery Blast Kills 6, Injures 42" (https://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=anFRt
cclUsFg&refer=home). Bloomberg. 2008-02-08. Retrieved 2008-06-19.
11. "CTA Acoustics Dust Explosion and Fire." (http://www.csb.gov/cta-acoustics-dust-explosion-and-fire/) Chemical
Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, February 15, 2005. Retrieved December 6, 2014.
12. "Hayes Lemmertz explosion and fire." (http://www.csb.gov/hayes-lemmerz-dust-explosions-and-fire/) www.csb.gov,
September 27, 2005. Retrieved December 6, 2014.
13. "OSHA announces development of a combustible dust standard." (http://www.nfpa.org/press-room/news-releases/200
9/osha-announces-development-of-a-combustible-dust-standard) www.nfpa.org, December 7, 2009. Retrieved
January 12, 2015.
14. Press Release. "Statement of CSB Investigations Manager Stephen Selk, P.E., Updating the Public on the
Investigation of the Imperial Sugar Company Explosion and Fire, Savannah, Georgia." (http://www.csb.gov/statement-
of-csb-investigations-manager-stephen-selk-p-e-updating-the-public-on-the-investigation-of-the-imperial-sugar-compa
ny-explosion-and-fire-savannah-georgia/) www.csb.gov, February 17, 2008. Retrieved December 8, 2014.
15. Herring, Barbara. "Explosion at Chatham County Sugar Refinery." (http://www.wsav.com/story/20696108/explosion-at-
chatham-county-sugar-refinery) www.wsav.com, February 8, 2008. Retrieved December 7, 2014.
16. Testimonial record on the"Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act of 2008" (http://www.osha.gov/pls/osh
aweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=TESTIMONIES&p_id=433). Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
2008-03-12. Retrieved 2008-06-22.
17. "4 killed in Georgia refinery blast; at least 4 people missing." (http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/02/08/refinery.blast/index.
html?iref=storysearch) CNN, February 8, 2008. Retrieved December 5, 2014.
18. Associated Press. "Bodies recovered in Georgia sugar refinery explosion." (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/b
odies-recovered-georgia-sugar-refinery-explosion-article-1.308071) New York Daily News, February 8, 2008.
Retrieved December 12, 2014.
19. "4 dead in Ga. sugar refinery blast." (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/23059948/ns/us_news-life/t/found-dead-ga-sugar-ref
inery-blast/#.VIoKuzHF_Ik) www.nbcnews.com, February 8, 2008. Retrieved December 11, 2014.
20. "Imperial Sugar Refinery Blast in Port Wentworth, Ga. Blamed for Three Deaths, Several Still Missing" (http://www.tra
nsworldnews.com/NewsStory.aspx?id=35930&cat=11). TransWorldNews. 2008-02-08. Retrieved 2008-06-22.
21. "Death toll in Georgia refinery blast rises to eight" (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23165158/). MSNBC. 2008-02-14.
Retrieved 2008-06-22.

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22. "OSHA ComDust Standard Sorely Needed, Imperial Sugar's CEO Says." (http://ohsonline.com/articles/2012/06/20/os
ha-comdust-standard-sorely-needed-imperial-sugars-ceo-says.aspx?admgarea=news) www.ohsonline.com, June 20,
2012. Retrieved January 10, 2015.
23. Hosier, Fred. "Imperial Sugar workers had little emergency exit training." (http://www.safetynewsalert.com/imperial-su
gar-workers-had-little-emergency-exit-training/) www.safetynewsalert.com, July 20, 2009. Retrieved January 9, 2015.
24. Press Release. "Imperial Sugar Board Affirms Intention to Rebuild Damaged Areas of Its Port Wentworth Refinery." (h
ttp://msnmoney.brand.edgar-online.com/EFX_dll/EDGARpro.dll?FetchFilingHTML1?ID=5872080&SessionID=otHrWt
a-cweD4C1) www.msnmoney.brand.edgar-online.com, April 18, 2008. Retrieved December 6, 2014.
25. "110th Congress, 2d Session. H.R. 5522: Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act of 2008." (http://www.g
po.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-110hr5522ih/pdf/BILLS-110hr5522ih.pdf) www.gpo.gov, March 4, 2008. Retrieved December
29, 2014.
26. "Text of the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act of 2008." (https://www.govtrack.us/
congress/bills/110/hr5522/text) www.govtrack.us, May 1, 2008. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
27. "NFPA 654: Standard for the Prevention of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing, and
Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids." (http://www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/document-information-pages?
mode=code&code=654) www.nfpa.org. Retrieved January 12, 2015.
28. Associated Press. "Widow files lawsuit in sugar refinery blast." (http://www.dailyreportonline.com/id=1202551620114/
Widow-files-lawsuit-in-sugar-refinery-blast?slreturn=20140827214527) www.dailyreporter.com, April 30, 2008.
Retrieved September 27, 2014.
29. "Widow files lawsuit in sugar refinery blast." (http://www.wrdw.com/home/headlines/18399649.html) www.wrdw.com,
April 30, 2014. Retrieved September 27, 2014.
30. Bynum, Russ. "Burned Georgia plant worker dies 6 months after explosion." (http://staugustine.com/stories/082408/n
ation_082408_078.shtml) The St. Augustine Record, August 28, 2014. Retrieved December 22, 2014.
31. Bynum, Russ. "Burn victims of Georgia refinery explosion face long, painful recovery." (http://legacy.utsandiego.com/n
ews/nation/20080306-1336-refineryblast.html) The San Diego Union Tribune, March 6, 2008. Retrieved December
22, 2008.
32. Associated Press. "Burn victims in Georgia face long recovery." (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/23510062/)
www.msnbc.com, March 6, 2008. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
33. Muller, Julia. "TIMELINE: Imperial Sugar explosion from 2008 until today." (http://savannahnow.com/news/2013-02-1
0/timeline-imperial-sugar-explosion-2008-until-today) Savannah Morning News, February 10, 2013. Retrieved
September 26, 2014.
34. "Scarred Ga. sugar blast victims hope for new rules." (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-02-06-georg
ia-blast_N.htm) USA Today, February 6, 2009. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
35. "Georgia sugar refinery explosion victim settles lawsuit." (http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2011/12/georgia_su
gar_refinery_explosi.html) www.nola.com, December 7, 2011.
36. "Board to rebuke OSHA for failing to write safety rules." (http://www.myajc.com/photo/news/board-rebuke-osha-failing
-write-safety-rules/pwWrk/) Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 26, 2009. Retrieved January 4, 2015.

External links
"TIMELINE: Imperial Sugar explosion from 2008 until today." (http://savannahnow.com/news/2013-02-10/timeline-imp
erial-sugar-explosion-2008-until-today) Contains list of fatalities.
Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act of 2008. (http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billt
ext.xpd?bill=h110-5522) (110th Congress)
"Inferno: Dust Explosion at Imperial Sugar" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg7mLSG-Yws), CSB safety video.
"How can sugar explode?" (http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/sugar-explode.htm)
Refers to Imperial Sugar explosion.
Port Wentworth, Georgia: Sugar Explosion Memorial. (http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/27903)
Sugar Refinery tribute ceremony. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocU9xdx93Yk) Savannah Morning News video
archives.

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