Didion Milling federally indicted for conspiracy to conceal violations leading to deadly 2017 explosion

MADISON, Wis. — Nearly five years after a deadly explosion that killed five employees, a grand jury has indicted Didion Milling and several high-ranking officials at the company for multiple federal crimes related to the blast.

The 36-page indictment, which was filed on Thursday, charges Didion Milling, Inc. and its vice president of operations Derrick Clark, food safety superintendent Shawn Mesner, environmental manager James Lenz, environmental coordinator Joseph Winch, day shift superintendent Anthony Hess and day shift superintendent Joel Niemeyer with several federal crimes.

Among the charges are fraud conspiracy, two counts of willful OSHA violation causing death, conspiracy to commit federal crimes, document falsification in contemplation of a federal investigation, false entries in EPA records, false entries in OSHA records, and two counts of obstruction of agency investigations.

Didion management knew dust cleaning was subpar

The indictment alleges Didion willfully violated federal law under the Occupational Safety and Health Act by failing to develop and implement a written program to prevent and remove combustible grain dust accumulation and by failing to install explosion venting or explosion suppression on a dust filter collector.

Federal prosecutors allege those actions directly led to the fatal explosion at Didion’s corn mill that killed five employees on May 31, 2017: Duelle Block, Carlos Nunez, Angel Reyes, Pawel Tordoff, and Robert Goodenow. A sixth employee, Collin Vander Galien, had to have his legs amputated due to injuries suffered in the explosion.

FROM 2017: The morning after the explosion

“DMI (Didion Milling, Inc.) operations and safety managers knew that DMI’ s sanitation program, as developed, did not establish cleaning frequencies and methods that were determined best to reduce combustible dust accumulations. The managers knew that DMI’s program could have included — but did not include — additional housekeeping provisions that were necessary at DMI to protect against dust explosions,” the indictment alleges.

Those additional provisions that were not used included more frequent cleanings in areas where dangerous levels of dust tended to quickly accumulate and more specific and practical methods for cleaning hard-to-reach overhead surfaces — like shutting down the mill to provide more opportunity for cleanings. Didion also did not provide an expanded central vacuum system and portable vacuums to clean accumulations and did not increase cleaning frequencies any time accumulations reached hazardous levels.

Outside of those processes not being included in Didion’s written cleaning plan, prosecutors allege managers at Didion knew what was included in the plan wasn’t being implemented, and that weekly cleanings of dust from walls, equipment, and overhead surfaces in each room of the mill weren’t getting done.

FROM 2017: Survivor of plant explosion: ‘The walls started crumbling in’

Fraud, conspiracy charges for alleged cover-ups at Didion

The federal government is also accusing Didion of conspiring to commit fraud by taking steps to conceal its failure to follow food safety procedures at the mill, including falsifying the cleaning logbook to hide that it wasn’t following its written cleaning schedule, allowing the company to continue selling its products to food and beverage manufacturers.

Those actions are also factoring into the conspiracy to commit federal crimes charge, according to the indictment. Prosecutors allege the company and the officials named also falsified baghouse monitoring logs, submitted false environmental compliance certifications, and provided false testimony to OSHA and the EPA.

Hess, Clark, and Didion Milling are also charged with obstruction of justice for lying and misleading OSHA about their knowledge of the combustible dust hazards at the mill ahead of the May 2017 explosion.

RELATED: Four years after deadly explosion, Didion’s $1.8M in OSHA fines remain unpaid

Potential penalties

Two other former Didion officials, shift superintendents Michael Bright and Nicholas Booker, previously pleaded guilty to making false entries in Didion’s cleaning logbook and baghouse log.

If convicted of the OSHA violations causing death charges, Didion and the officials named in the indictment could be forced to pay restitution to the victims. The defendants could also face up to 20 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines for the fraud conspiracy charges, and up to 5 to 20 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines for the federal criminal conspiracy charges.

Sentences will be decided by a federal district court judge.

Didion reaction

Didion released a statement to News 3 Now following the indictment and reacting to the federal charges:

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.

Read the full indictment below