Savannah Morning News - Chambliss: Tough Questions Regarding Imperial Sugar Tragedy were Necessary
Senator: I stand with employees and families of Imperial Sugar who have had a life-changing experience.
On Feb. 7 of this year, our coastal community experienced a great tragedy when an explosion occurred at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth. Thirteen lives were lost, dozens more were injured and families were changed forever.
Following the explosion, I visited with the families and employees and toured the exterior of the facility. It was indeed an emotional visit.
These types of accidents must be prevented, and that is why I have continued to seek answers on behalf of the families who were shaken by this terrible situation. It is why Sen. Johnny Isakson and I urged the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the interim executive of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board to fully investigate the accident and, if appropriate, assess penalties to any party determined to have violated The Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) Act.
OSHA is the only federal agency with the statutory authority to penalize the company for violations of workplace safety law.
The results of the OSHA investigation, recently released, determined that Imperial Sugar "egregiously and willfully" violated safety and health standards and a total of $8,777,000 in fines was issued to Imperial Sugar, making it the third largest fine to one company in the history of OSHA.
However, this is not the end of the story, and it is for this reason I asked tough questions during a hearing on Capitol Hill this past week examining the role of combustible dust, which is believed to have played a role in the accident.
During the hearing, an official of Imperial Sugar testified about conditions at the plant, and I asked him some tough and direct questions. This is an emotional and tragic issue, so it is baffling to me that my intense questioning created quite a stir in the media, with some making accusations that this newspaper has since had to correct for being false.
In fact, I did not receive a political contribution from Imperial Sugar in June 2008 as the paper reported.
Let me be clear, I was elected by the people of Georgia to stick up for them, and when injuries occur and lives are lost in a tragedy like the one that occurred in Port Wentworth, you bet I am going to ask harsh questions. The media needs to do the same. It infuriates me that this incident occurred and it cannot happen again.
During the hearing, I believed it was necessary to ask the witness, who held himself out to be in charge of safety at the plant and had described the conditions as "shocking, dirty, dangerous, and combustible," why he didn't recommend the plant be shut down and cleaned up. The company had adhered to every one of his recommendations to that point, so I wanted to know why he had not proposed to management to shut down the facility and make it safe.
Because of that question, some accused me of taking a "cheap shot," but the unfortunate reality here is people were seriously hurt and lives were lost when this situation clearly could have been prevented.
It is disappointing that members of the media chose to come down on the side of political cynicism. That is not what Georgians want, but unfortunately in this case, that is what they got.
I will continue to ask the tough questions and stand with the employees and the families who have had a life changing experience, and I will do everything I can to ensure a tragedy like this does not happen again.
Saxby Chambliss is a U.S. senator from Georgia.