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Imperial sugar refinery combustible dust explosion investigation


  • This article was originally presented at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2010 Spring Meeting, 6th Global Congress on Process Safety, San Antonio, TX, March 22–24, 2010.

  • This article is a U.S. Government work and, as such, is in the public domain in the United States of America.


On February 7, 2008, at about 7:15 p.m., a series of sugar dust explosions at the Imperial Sugar manufacturing facility in Port Wentworth, GA, resulted in 14 worker fatalities. Thirty-six workers were treated for serious burns and injuries—some caused permanent, life-altering conditions. The explosions and subsequent fires destroyed the sugar packing buildings, palletizer room, and silos, and severely damaged the bulk train car loading area and parts of the sugar refining process areas.

The Imperial Sugar manufacturing facility housed a refinery that converts raw cane sugar into granulated sugar. A system of screw and belt conveyors and bucket elevators transported granulated sugar from the refinery to three 105-foot tall sugar storage silos. Granulated sugar was then transported through conveyors and bucket elevators to specialty sugar processing areas and granulated sugar packaging machines. Sugar products were packaged in a four-story building surrounding the silos that contained packaging machines for the sugar products. Granulated sugar was also bulk shipped in railcars and tanker trucks in the bulk sugar loading area.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) determined that the first dust explosion occurred in the enclosed steel belt conveyor located below the sugar silos. Steel cover panels installed on the belt conveyor less than a year before the explosion allowed explosive concentrations of sugar dust to accumulate inside the enclosure. An unknown source ignited the sugar dust, causing a violent explosion. The explosion lofted sugar dust that had accumulated on the floors and elevated horizontal surfaces, propagating more dust explosions through the buildings. Secondary dust explosions occurred throughout the packing buildings, parts of the refinery, and the bulk sugar loading buildings. The pressure waves from the explosions heaved thick concrete floors and collapsed brick walls, blocking stairwell and other exit routes. The resulting fires destroyed the packing buildings, silos, palletizer building and heavily damaged parts of the refinery and bulk sugar loading area.

The CSB investigation identified the following incident causes:

  • 1Sugar and cornstarch conveying equipment was not designed or maintained to minimize the release of sugar and sugar dust into the work area.
  • 2Inadequate housekeeping practices resulted in significant accumulations of combustible granulated and powdered sugar and combustible sugar dust on the floors and elevated surfaces throughout the packing buildings.
  • 3Airborne combustible sugar dust accumulated above the minimum explosible concentration inside the newly enclosed steel belt assembly under silos 1 and 2.
  • 4An overheated bearing in the steel belt conveyor most likely ignited a primary dust explosion.
  • 5The primary dust explosion inside the enclosed steel conveyor belt under silos 1 and 2 triggered massive secondary dust explosions and fires throughout the packing buildings.
  • 6Accumulated sugar dust and spilled sugar fueled the secondary explosions and fires. All 14 fatalities were the result of these secondary events.

This article presents the CSB investigation and discusses important management practices to prevent similar combustible dust explosions. Published 2011 American Institute of Chemical Engineers Process Saf Prog, 2011