MADISON, WISCONSIN, US — A federal grand jury in Madison on May 11 issued an indictment charging Didion Milling Inc. and six of its employees with crimes related to worker safety, fraud, air pollution and obstruction of justice, in connection with a May 31, 2017, explosion and large fire that killed five people and injured 15 at the company’s Cambria, Wisconsin, US, mill, according to the Department of Justice.
The individuals facing the charges include: Derrick Clark, vice president of operations; Shawn Mesner, former food safety superintendent; Anthony Hess, former shift superintendent; and Joel Niemeyer, former shift superintendent.
In addition to the indictment charges, two former company supervisors — Michael Bright, former shift superintendent, and Nicholas Booker, former shift superintendent — previously pleaded guilty to related charges in the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
According to the indictment handed down on May 11, Didion Milling was required to regularly clean dust accumulations from inside the mill in order to prevent both food safety and quality issues and to remove accumulations that could fuel combustible dust explosions. The company also was required to operate and maintain air pollution control devices called baghouses to reduce emissions of grain dust and was required to document the completion of routine cleanings inside the mill and the routine monitoring of baghouses to prevent dust emissions outside of the mill.
But according to the DOJ, the federal grand jury indictment alleges Didion Milling “willfully violated two federal safety standards promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) — by (1) by failing to develop and implement a written program to effectively prevent and remove combustible grain dust accumulations, and (2) by failing to install explosion venting or explosion suppression on a dust filter collector.”
The indictment further alleges that Didion Milling and the named employees conspired to commit fraud by agreeing to take deceptive measures to conceal the failure to adhere to food safety procedures at the mill, the DOJ noted. Those measures included falsifying the cleaning logbook to conceal the fact that the company was not following its written cleaning schedule, so that Didion Milling could maintain its food safety certification and continue to sell its products to food and beverage manufacturers.
The DOJ also noted that Didion Milling, Clark, Mesner, Hess, Niemeyer and former environmental coordinators James Lenz and Joseph Winch were indicted for conspiracy to commit federal offenses in order to conceal violations and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies. The alleged conspiracy included an agreement to falsify cleaning logs and baghouse monitoring logs, submit false environmental compliance certifications, and provide false testimony on matters within the jurisdictions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the DOJ said.
If convicted of the OSHA offenses, Didion may be ordered to make restitution to victims and sentenced to corporate probation with conditions. If convicted of the federal fraud conspiracy, the defendants may be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, fined not more than $1 million and ordered to forfeit assets derived from fraud, the DOJ said. If convicted of conspiracy to commit federal offenses and other substantive offenses set forth in the indictment, the defendants may be sentenced to between 5 to 20 years in prison and fines up to $1 million depending on the crime of conviction, the DOJ said.
Responding to the indictment, Didion Milling issued the following statement: “Our thoughts and prayers remain strong for the families, friends, and co-workers of those affected by the accident. The tragic accident deeply affected everyone at Didion. We are disappointed the government has decided to pursue these unwarranted charges. What happened on May 31, five years ago was a horrible accident, not a criminal act. While we have cooperated fully with the investigation since day one, we now must respond with a strong, vigorous defense for the company and our team. As a family-owned business for 50 years, we have a culture of safety and quality engrained in all we do. We take care of one another in the Didion family, and we continue to invest in safety and quality because it is the right thing to do.”