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Didion, six employees charged in deadly Didion explosion

Didion officials issued a statement saying the explosion was an accident.
Published: May. 13, 2022 at 11:04 AM CDT|Updated: May. 13, 2022 at 7:22 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV/AP) -- A federal grand jury indicted five employees of Didion Milling Inc., including one of its vice-presidents, as well as the company itself, in connection with the explosion that killed five works and injured a dozen more people, the U.S. Dept. of Justice announced Friday morning.

The grand jury returned an indictment earlier this week against Didion Milling Inc. and company leaders, court records indicate. The indictment alleges that between March 2013 and February 2018, the company failed to keep up with cleanings at the Cambria plant as required by federal regulations and falsified records to make it look as if the cleanings were completed.

Didion officials issued a statement saying the explosion was an accident and that they were disappointed that the federal government decided to pursue “unwarranted charges.”

“What happened on May 31, five years ago was a horrible accident, not a criminal act,” the statement said. “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.”

The indictment accuses the company violated to OSHA safety standards in two ways, by: not developing and implementing a written policy for removing combustible grain dust accumulations and not installing explosion venting or suppression on a dust filter collector.

(NBC15)

The six individuals who were indicted are accused of conspiring to break federal by allegedly hiding the company’s violations and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies. According to prosecutors, they agreed to fake cleaning logs and baghouse monitor logs, as well as submitting bogus compliance certifications. Additionally, they allegedly lied when providing information that falls under OSHA and the EPA’s purviews.

The six individuals included in those allegations were:

  • Derek Clark, 48, Vice-President of Operations
  • Shawn Mesner, 44, a former food safety superintendent
  • Anthony Hess, 54, a former shift superintendent
  • Joel Niemeyer, 39, a former shift supervisor
  • James Lenz, 65, a former environmental supervisor
  • Joseph Winch, 66, a former environmental supervisor

DMI and four of the individuals – Clark, Hess, Mesner, and Niemeyer – also face a charge of conspiracy to commit fraud. Prosecutors allege they worked together to hide violations and unsafe conditions from overseers, but faking their cleaning logbooks to hide that they were not following the company’s

Finally, Hess and Clark, along with the company, are accused of obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to OSHA after the deadly explosion.

DMI’s charge of violating a safety standard willfully and that violation causes the death of an employee is considered a misdemeanor and could lead to the company owing restitution to the victims’ families and being ordered to pay for pecuniary losses as well as any fines. It could also be subjected to corporate probation.

Each of the charges against the individuals who were indicted carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a million dollar fine. Some could also require them to forfeit any monetary gains from their alleged crimes.

The agency noted that two supervisors, Michael Bright and Nicholas Booker, have already pleaded guilty to making false entries in two logbooks, one of which falls under the purview of OSHA and the other is in the EPA’s jurisdiction.

In this image taken from a video by WISN-TV, the rubble of a corn mill plant following an...
In this image taken from a video by WISN-TV, the rubble of a corn mill plant following an explosion is seen, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Cambria, Wis. The sheriff in Columbia County said that the blast was reported around 11 p.m. Wednesday at the Didion Milling Plant in Cambria, about 80 miles northwest of Milwaukee. (WISN-TV via AP)(KWQC)

The explosion May 31, 2017, leveled most of the sprawling facility about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Madison. Killed in the blast were Didion employees Duelle Block, Robert Goodenow, Carlos “Charly” Nunez, Angel Reyes and Pawel Tordoff. Fifteen more people were injured.

Federal inspectors have said an accumulation of grain dust likely caused the explosion. Corn dust is combustible; if concentrations in the air reach a high level a spark or other ignition source can cause it to catch fire and explode. Federal regulations require grain mill operators to perform regular cleanings to reduce dust accumulations that could fuel a blast.

The U.S. 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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