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Grain milling company charged with OSHA crimes after deadly explosion in 2017

Posted at 10:33 AM, May 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-13 18:34:33-04

CAMBRIA, WI — Nearly five years after a deadly explosion at a corn mill in Cambria, Didion Milling Inc. (DMI), and several employees are being charged with crimes related to worker safety, fraud, air pollution, and obstruction of justice.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced the news Friday saying the company and six individuals are facing federal charges. DOJ said the indictment goes on to charge Didion Milling's vice president of operations, Derrick Clark, 48 of Waunakee, Wisconsin; its former food safety superintendent, Shawn Mesner, 44 of Readstown, Wisconsin; its former shift superintendent, Anthony Hess, 54 of Pardeeville, Wisconsin; and its former shift superintendent, Joel Niemeyer, 39 of Baraboo, Wisconsin.

According to the indictment, Didion Milling Inc. owned and operated the corn mill in Cambria, Wis. when it was leveled in an explosion, killing five employees. The company was required to regularly clean dust accumulations from inside the mill to prevent food safety and quality issues and to remove accumulations that could fuel combustible dust explosions.

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Didion Milling was also required to operate and maintain air pollution control devices and document the completion of these cleanings inside the mill.

According to the indictment, DMI did not keep a proper log of the important cleaning procedures of the plant. It points out how corn grain is highly combustible and details how supervisors made requests of employees to backdate the cleaning logs so they would be compliant for audits. It also says managers were aware the cleanings frequently did not get done.

In a 2014 email from the Food Safety Superintendent, Shawn Mesner, he acknowledges approximately 300 "task not completed" entries. Additional emails from 2016 show 130 and 36 blank entries.

Didion Blank Entries for cleaning

It makes it unclear if those cleanings were ever done.

There are nearly three dozen entries, labeled Overt Acts, in the indictment, showing times where supervisors sent emails requesting the empty logs be filled out for upcoming audits.

The indictment reads, "DMI 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."

Those types of entries continued for years, according to the indictment. Less than two weeks before the deadly explosion, Mesner signed off on falsified weekly cleaning entries for the first week of May, 2017.

The indictment said the failure to follow these procedures caused the death of five employees "due to a combustible dust explosion at DMI's corn mill on May 31, 2017."

The indictment alleges those four conspired to commit fraud by agreeing to take deceptive measures to conceal their failure to comply with OSHA standards. According to the DOJ, one of those measures was falsifying the cleaning logbook to conceal the fact that DMI was not following its written cleaning schedule.

In addition to OSHA charges, Clark, Deininger, Mesner, Hess and Niemeyer, along with DMI’s former environmental coordinators James Lenz, 65 of Deerfield, Wisconsin, and Joseph Winch, 66, of Logansport, Indiana are facing federal charges for "conspiracy to commit federal offenses in order to conceal violations and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies."

The indictment says Clark lied about the cleaning logs and about previous fires and explosions to investigators after the explosion. It also cites an email from Clark saying, "I just need everyone to make sure [the logs] are up to date."

If convicted of the OSHA offenses, Didion Milling may be ordered to pay restitution to victims and sentence to corporate probation with conditions.

If convicted on federal charges, the defendants could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

Didion Milling did not have anyone available for an interview today but provided 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.

Even after the deadly incident in 2017, Didion has been slapped with 17 OSHA violations, including 12 considered serious.

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