Combustible dust caused a deadly explosion at Imperial Sugar's Georgia refinery. - Photo courtesy of U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Combustible dust caused a deadly explosion at Imperial Sugar's Georgia refinery.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

As we continue our after-action reviews of historical events that have impacted the industrial fire service, the 2008 explosion at Imperial Sugar's Georgia refinery is one that deserves special attention.

On Feb. 7 of that year, a sugar dust explosion in Port Wentworth claimed 14 lives and injured 38 others. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which released its report on the incident in September 2009, found that the explosion was "entirely preventable."

This event wasn't a surprise to authorities as dust explosions had contributed to three fatal incidents just five years earlier. Despite efforts to improve safety and reduce the potential for recurrence, the 2008 sugar refinery explosion represents a tragic failure to learn from the past.

For most people the phrase "dust explosion" summons an image as slight as emptying a vacuum clearer, not an industrial catastrophe that destroys life and property.

Large quantities of dust dispersed and suspended in air can cause a rapid combustion known as deflagration. The vast list of industries subject to such disasters includes agriculture, chemicals, foods such as flour and starch, grain, fertilizer, tobacco, plastics, wood, paper, rubber, textiles, pharmaceuticals, coal and metal processing.

A massive accumulation of combustible sugar dust fueled the blast that demolished much of the Imperial Sugar refinery in Chatham County. The explosion originated in the packaging facility, a four-story structure at the center of the refinery built around its storage silos.

The blast turned the packaging facility into a complicated maze of twisted metal. Most of the injured managed to escape the burning structure without assistance. Fortunately, the blast did not reach the nearly 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel stored on site.

Blast damage left the refinery's fire suppression system dry. Tugs equipped with pumps drafted water from the Savannah River to supply the aerials. Meanwhile, Effingham County firefighters organized a rotation of five 3,500-gallon tankers that operated for seven hours.

The refinery was located out of the city limits of Port Wentworth. Only six months before the blast, Chief Greg Long's department was assigned responsibility for fire protection at Imperial.

"We were still in the process of working with them to complete a pre-plan (emergency contingency plant)," Long said.

Firefighters, safety managers, and industrial responders should review this incident and the investigative reports that followed to learn critical lessons.

Review these events with the benefit of hindsight and evaluate how a similar event would be handled today given the training and resources available.

Ask Yourself the Following:

  1. What potential do you have within your area of response for a dust explosion?
  2. Is plant cleanliness considered during your monthly or annual inspections?  If so, do you report your findings, and do you have a process for a follow-up inspection to verify corrective action has been taken?
  3. The molten sugar and structural damage from the fire and explosion in this incident hindered rescue operations of first arriving firefighters. What resources do you have immediately available for a structural collapse incident?
  4. What tools or technology is available today that might provide a rapid assessment of the situation that didn't exist in 2008?
  5. As a first responder to an industrial facility, when was the last time you conducted a risk assessment for the facilities within your response district? Have you planned for worst-case scenarios involving structural collapse, compromised search operations, and advancing fire conditions?
  6. If this incident had occurred in your response district, what would have been the initial response?
  7. What specialized resources would you have called for assistance?
  8. Do you currently have formal mutual aid/auto aid agreements in place with these agencies?  If not, why not?

Editor's note: Check out the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's final after-action report here.