Corn Milling Company Officials Sentenced to Federal Prison for Role in Deadly Explosion

February 26, 2024
This week, U.S. District Court Judge James D. Peterson for the Western District of Wisconsin sentenced six Didion Milling Inc. officials – including a corporate vice president and former food safety, environmental and operations managers – for their role in a fatal explosion on May 31, 2017, at a mill operated by Didion.
Didion Vice President of Operations, Derrick Clark, was sentenced to two years in prison, a year of supervised release and a $5,000 fine.  Former Environmental Manager Joseph Winch was sentenced to two years in prison, two years of supervised release and a $10,000 fine for conspring to falsify Didion’s environmental compliance certifications. Former Food Safety Superintendent Shawn Mesner was sentenced to two years in prison and a year of supervised release after being convicted in October 2023 of conspiring to commit fraud and to falsify Didion’s sanitation log.
Three former Didion shift superintendents – Anthony Hess, Joel Niemeyer and Michael Bright – were sentenced probation and fines for falsification of Didion’s sanitation log.  Nicholas Booker, a fourth shift superintendent, is scheduled to be sentenced in March.
Additionally, the Didion company pled guilty to falsifying its environmental and sanitation logs. Judge Peterson sentenced the company last month to pay $10.25 million in restitution to the victims of the May 2017 explosion and a $1 million fine, as well as to serve five years of probation with special conditions related to oversight of Didion’s operations.
“These defendants put Didion workers in grave danger and five people tragically lost their lives, devastating their families and their community,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “Companies of all sizes should take note: failure to comply with our country’s workplace safety and environmental laws can cost workers their lives and put individual corporate managers in federal prison.”
At around 10:30 p.m. on the night of the explosion, a fire originated in milling equipment at Didion’s corn mill in Cambria, Wisconsin. The fire led to a series of explosions in the facility, killing five workers and seriously injuring others. The explosions also damaged and caused the collapse of multiple mill buildings. An investigation into Didion’s worker and food safety and environmental practices uncovered criminal violations of law attributable to both the company and senior officials.
Grain milling generates grain dust, which must be effectively managed for workplace safety, environmental, and food safety and quality reasons. Mill operators must adhere to rules and requirements intended to minimize hazards. Grain dust is combustible, and mill operators need to maintain workplace safety through cleaning programs that remove dust accumulations from inside a mill. Mill operators must also capture dust before it is emitted into the environment as particulate matter, a kind of air pollutant.
Investigations of the explosion at Didion’s Cambria mill uncovered long-standing inadequate safety measures and improper handling of grain dust that Didion and its employees concealed through falsified documents and other obstructive conduct.
In October 2023, the Justice Department secured guilty pleas from the company, Didion, and company officials, as well as convictions against two more Didion officials. Today and yesterday, three defendants were sentenced to prison time for their crimes, and another three were sentenced to probation. Sentencing for an additional defendant is scheduled for March. The company was sentenced in January 2024.
“Didion Milling and its senior managers put corporate profits ahead of worker safety and environmental protection, with tragic consequences,” said Assistant Administrator David M. Uhlmann for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “The sentences imposed this week demonstrate that EPA and its law enforcement partners are committed to seeking justice for victims of environmental crime and their families.”
“Workplace and environmental safety are of paramount importance,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “We will continue seeking to enforce regulations designed to prevent workplace disasters, and also to punish deceptive conduct that would undermine the administration of these important federal programs.”
“The Didion Milling dust explosion was a tragic incident resulting from a notorious industrial hazard. Individuals considering falsifying records are on notice that making false statements and attempting to obstruct our investigation are serious crimes and will be punished as such,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su. “The court’s sentences hold the company and these individuals accountable and send a clear message that cover-ups related to workplace safety will not be tolerated.”
Clark was convicted in October 2023 of conspiring to falsify documents relating to dust cleaning practices in the mill and the operation of air pollution prevention equipment and making false compliance certifications as Didion’s “responsible official” under the Clean Air Act. He was also convicted for obstructing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) investigation of the explosion at the corn mill by making false and misleading statements during a sworn deposition.
Winch pled guilty to his conspiracy charge before trial, but the court’s sentencing took into consideration Winch’s effort to obstruct the trial of his co-defendants by committing perjury during his trial testimony.
Mesner’s falsification of the log was part of a scheme to mislead Didion’s customers and auditors about the company’s sanitation practices. The log also related to Didion’s compliance with worker safety protections, including the required cleanup of combustible dust, like fine grain dust, to prevent fires and explosions in grain handling facilities. The log purported to be a record of those dust cleanings. Mesner also provided untruthful testimony to OSHA during a sworn statement after the explosion.
Hess, Niemeyer and Bright pled guilty to felonies before trial and accepted responsibility for their actions. Hess was sentenced to a probationary sentence; Niemeyer was sentenced to a year of probation and a $1000 fine; and Bright was sentenced to a year of probation.
Alabama Sawmill to Pay $2.5 Million in Penalties for Willful Disregard for Safety that Led to Fatality
A federal investigation into an August 2023 horrific fatal incident at a Phenix City sawmill revealed, for the second time in three years, that the employer could have prevented a tragedy by following required safety rules.
OSHA, responding to reports by first responders, found that a 67-year-old sawmill supervisor at MDLG Inc., operating as Phenix Lumber Co., had climbed on top of an auger to access a difficult-to-reach area to unclog a woodchipper. Because of multiple failures by the employer to protect him, the machine started while the employee was on top of the auger. The 20-year employee was caught in the machinery and fatally injured.
“Phenix Lumber's willful disregard for the well-being of their employees leaves another family to grieve the loss of their loved one. This must stop,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer in Atlanta. “This worksite has become all too familiar to OSHA. Phenix and its owners have a legal responsibility to follow federal safety laws that are meant to prevent the exact hazards that cost this employee's life.”
In response to the August 2023 fatal incident, OSHA cited Phenix Lumber Co., as well as its owners John Menza Dudley Jr. and Leslie Elizabeth Dudley, with 22 willful violations, one repeat violation and five serious violations, totaling $2,471,683 in proposed penalties. Specifically, the agency found the employer failed to:
  • Ensure employees used energy control procedures to prevent the unexpected start-up of machines while performing maintenance and servicing activities such as clearing jams.
  • Ensure the use of lockout/tagout devices on machinery when performing maintenance.
  • Provide training to employees on the purpose and function of the energy control program, as well as ensure they have the knowledge and skills required for the safe application of energy control measures.
  • Maintain guarding on machines that posed amputation hazards to employees.
  • Require fall protection to be used in work areas above four feet.
  • Require employees operating a forklift to wear a seatbelt.
  • Maintain fire extinguishers in a fully charged and operable condition.
  • Ensure an electrical disconnect was located in direct line of sight from the equipment being locked out.
Prior to these citations, Phenix Lumber Co. had been inspected four times in the past five years, including a fatality inspection in 2020 that resulted in the agency citing the company with four willful and 10 serious violations.
OSHA added the employer to the agency's Severe Violators Enforcement Program in 2020, a program for employers who endanger workers by committing willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations that could lead to fatalities or catastrophic injuries. Employers remain on the list until they can demonstrate certain criteria and safety standards within a three-year timeframe.
Agencies Encourage Clinicians to Consider Occupational Exposures to PFAS
A new document published by CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) discusses considerations for clinicians whose patients are concerned about exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). According to the agencies, increases in cholesterol levels, lower antibody response to vaccines, kidney and testicular cancer, and changes in liver enzymes are among the health effects potentially associated with exposure to PFAS. Other potential health effects include pregnancy-induced hypertension, preeclampsia, and decreases in birth weight. As community awareness around this group of synthetic chemicals increases, people are asking healthcare providers for counseling and support regarding exposure. The new document highlights ingestion of contaminated food and water as a main route of exposure to PFAS but notes that workplaces that manufacture, use, or handle PFAS present additional exposure sources.
One way that clinicians can determine the duration, magnitude, and routes of a patient’s PFAS exposures is by taking an exposure history. A PFAS exposure history asks about a patient’s occupational or recreational exposures to fluorochemical manufacturing processes, firefighting foams, ski wax, and other PFAS-containing materials, among other questions. In addition to identifying current and past PFAS exposures, an exposure history can help patients understand how they have been exposed to PFAS and whether current exposures can be reduced. CDC and ATSDR recommend that clinicians consult with an occupational and environmental medicine specialist regarding workplace exposure reduction strategies.
The document is available as a PDF from ATSDR’s website.
Steel Fabrication Company Fined $348K After Employees Exposed to Workplace Hazards
OSHA has cited a steel fabrication business after finding the company willfully exposed workers to safety and health hazards at its Millville shop.
OSHA issued citations – four willful and seven serious violations - against Kenric Steel LLC and proposed $348,683 in penalties. The agency's investigation began on July 26, 2023, in response to a complaint.
The violations involved Kenric Steel's failure to:
  • Medically evaluate new employees required to wear respirators.
  • Conduct annual inspections of overhead cranes.
  • Ensure proper use of welding screens.
  • Train new hires on chemical safety.
  • Ensure grounding and bonding of a spray finishing process.
  • Label containers and maintain safety data sheets for chemicals.
  • Install the correct circuit breakers to operate lights.
"A few months before our inspection, Kenric Steel hired a safety consultant who identified multiple safety and health hazards at the Millville fabrication shop. However, the company failed to correct the hazards, which is unacceptable," said OSHA Area Director Paula Dixon-Roderick in Marlton, New Jersey. "Employers are legally obligated to provide a safe and healthful workplace for all workers."
Kenric Steel is a family-owned and operated steel fabrication business specializing in the furnishing and installation of structural and miscellaneous steel, as well as custom fabrication and installation of manufactured safety and fall protection products.
California Landfill Presents Imminent and Substantial Endangerment to Communities
The EPA has ordered Chiquita Canyon LLC (CCL) to take immediate steps to protect human health and the environment at its non-hazardous municipal solid waste landfill in Castaic, California. The order requires Chiquita to mitigate off-site community impacts caused by noxious odors and hazardous waste leachate and to contain and reduce the smoldering or reaction event occurring at the landfill. 
“This order reflects EPA’s commitment to ensuring landfill operators mitigate noxious odors and comply with federal law to prevent public exposure to hazardous wastes,” said EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman. “Today’s order is the result of local, state, and federal collaboration to better protect the health of nearby residents as well as the surrounding environment.”
The 639-acre Chiquita Canyon Landfill, located in the northern section of Los Angeles County, has garnered thousands of complaints from nearby residents about noxious odors and leachate (the result of rainwater or other liquid filtering through or draining from wastes placed in a landfill) and prompted the issuance of over one hundred notices of violation from state and local regulatory agencies to CCL. The source of the complaints is a sub-surface smoldering or elevated temperature reaction at the landfill that began in May 2022 and has grown in size and impact. As of January 17, 2024, the reaction area was located approximately 1,000 feet from the nearest resident.
In 2023, residents of the communities surrounding the landfill submitted more than 6,800 complaints of odor nuisance to the South Coast Air Quality Monitoring District (SCAQMD). Residents reported numerous health impacts from the noxious odors, including eye irritation, respiratory symptoms, and skin issues. SCAQMD has consistently traced odors back to the landfill and the reaction area and it has taken independent enforcement actions to mitigate the public health impacts caused to the community by the odors. 
The leachate seeping from the reaction area contains elevated levels of benzene, a hazardous substance. Benzene can adversely affect human health through air exposure or the consumption of benzene-contaminated water. The sub-surface reaction has caused a significant increase in leachate production, which CCL failed to properly manage as hazardous waste and has not been properly treating, storing, or disposing of the leachate.
On November 30, 2023, local, state, and federal agencies formed a multi-agency critical action team to address the human health and environmental impacts caused by the deteriorating conditions at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill.
The Unilateral Administrative Order (UAO) issued by EPA, in coordination with the multi-agency team, requires Chiquita Canyon LLC to comply with the law and properly manage, treat, and dispose of hazardous waste and to take steps to mitigate the odors emanating from the landfill.
EPA can issue a UAO when the agency finds there may be an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health or the environment. The order issued by EPA incorporates on-going enforcement efforts by state and local agencies to ensure a comprehensive response to the challenges posed by the landfill. Once approved by the agency, EPA will oversee implementation of the plan.
News Links
Trivia Question of the Week