Madison, Wisconsin (WMTV/AP) – A federal grand jury has indicted five Didion Milling employees, including one of its vice presidents, as well as the company itself, in connection with an explosion that killed five businesses and injured five. The US Department of Justice announced Friday morning that more than a dozen other people.
A grand jury issued an indictment earlier this week against Didion Milling Inc. and company leaders, according to court records. The indictment alleges that between March 2013 and February 2018, the company failed to keep up with cleanups at the Cambria plant as required by federal regulations and false records to make it appear as though the cleanups had been completed.
Didion officials issued a statement saying that the explosion was an accident and that they were disappointed that the federal government decided to pursue “unjustified accusations”.
“What happened on May 31, five years ago, was a horrific accident, not a criminal act,” the statement said. “While we have fully cooperated with the investigation from day one, we must now respond with a strong and robust defense for the company and our team.”
The indictment accuses the company of violating OSHA standards in two ways, by: failing to establish and implement a written policy to remove combustible grain dust buildups and not installing a vent or blast suppression on the dust filter collector.
The six people indicted are accused of conspiring to violate federalism by concealing company abuse and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies. According to prosecutors, they agreed to falsify cleaning records and bag control records, as well as submitting fake compliance certificates. In addition, they allegedly lied when providing information that falls under the purview of OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The six individuals involved in those allegations are:
- Derek Clark, 48, Vice President of Operations
- Shawn Meisner, 44, former food safety supervisor
- Anthony Hess, 54, former shift supervisor
- Joel Niemeyer, 39, former shift supervisor
- James Lenz, 65, former environmental supervisor
- Joseph Winch, 66, former environmental supervisor
DMI and four of the individuals – Clark, Hess, Mesner and Niemeyer – also face a charge of conspiracy to commit fraud. Prosecutors claim that they worked together to conceal abuse and unsafe conditions from supervisors, but that they falsified their cleaning records to conceal that they were not affiliated with the company
Finally, Hess and Clark, along with the company, were charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the fatal explosion.
DMI’s charge of willfully violating safety standards and causing the death of an employee is a misdemeanor and may result in the company’s compensation to the families of the victims and orders to pay financial losses in addition to any fines. It may also be subject to monitoring by the company.
Each of the charges against the accused individuals carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Some may also demand that they relinquish any financial gain from their alleged crimes.
The agency noted that two of its supervisors, Michael Bright and Nicholas Bowker, had already pleaded guilty to making false entries in two books, one of which falls under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the other in the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency.
An explosion on May 31, 2017, destroyed most of the sprawling facility 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Madison. The blast killed Didion Doyle Block, Robert Godino, Carlos “Charlie” Nunez, Angel Reyes and Paul Tordoff. Fifteen people were injured.
Federal inspectors said a buildup of grain dust was likely the cause of the explosion. Corn dust is flammable. If concentrations in the air reach a high level, a spark or other ignition source can cause a fire and explosion. Federal regulations require grain mill operators to perform regular cleanings to reduce dust buildup that can lead to a blast.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Didion more than $1.8 million in connection with the explosion in the months following the explosion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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