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

CAMBRIA, Wis. — It’s been four years this week since an explosion at the Didion Milling Inc. grain mill in Cambria killed five people and injured fourteen more, but almost $2 million in fines have gone unpaid in the years since.

The U.S. Department of Labor found the explosion on May 31, 2017 was caused by dust hazards created by the grain mill’s operations, that could have been prevented by established industry safety protocols. Didion had already been fined about $3,000 in 2013 for failures to implement dust protections.

$1.8M in fines still unpaid

OSHA issued about $1.8 million in fines for the explosion, which Didion appealed in December of 2017 because they said they didn’t agree with the violation categories. OSHA investigation records chronicled failures and a lack of proper equipment to protect employees from dust hazards before the explosion.

That appeal with a federal review court is still pending, according to OSHA records. The review board did not respond in time to requests for a status update on the case. In 2017, Didion officials said in a prepared statement that the appeal process could take “up to a year”. During OSHA appeals, companies don’t have to pay their fines–or fix issues related to the violations.

“Didion continues to remember and honor the team members lost and injured in the 2017 incident,” a spokesperson told News 3 Investigates on June 1, in a statement. “We are unable to comment on ongoing legal proceedings and continue to work cooperatively with OSHA to resolve this matter.”

Five men died in the explosion: Duelle Block, Carlos Nunez, Angel Reyes, Pawel Tordoff and Robert Goodenow. Another employee, Collin Vander Galien, had to have his legs amputated.

Federal investigation remains unfinished

In 2017, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CMB) opened their own investigation into the incident, separate from the one conducted by OSHA.

The board does not issue fines, but is primarily taxed with investigating the root causes for industrial chemical accidents for the purpose of making new recommendations for safety procedures.

Four years later, a final report is still pending and the investigation is still “ongoing and being actively worked on,” a spokesperson said. (CMB declined to interview about the investigation.) It’s the third-oldest incident for which the board hasn’t yet completed a final report.

Study finds industry complacency a key roadblock towards safety

Last fall, the CMB did release a study as part of their investigation, with feedback from 57 industry representatives (both in the U.S. and worldwide) about some of the main issues that contribute to combustible dust-related accidents and explosions.

One of the key issues identified in the report was complacency towards dust hazards, or a lack of willingness in the industry to spend money on a problem that can go unnoticed for months or years at a time.

“One respondent pointed directly to a perceived conflict, ‘Dust is looked at like spending money on garbage.’ Quotes like this were common and point to the goal conflict between safety and production,” the report noted.

Of the four dust-related incident the CMB has investigated since 2006, the report said all of the companies—Didion being the most recent—shared a common attitude towards dust hazards leading up to the fatal incidents: “Dust was present, normal, and maintained at a ‘safe’ or ‘manageable’ level,” the report said.

Twenty-seven people died and 61 others were injured in those four CMB-investigated incidents. Since 2006, the report said there’s been 111 dust-related accidents at facilities where combustible dust is an ongoing issue.

Other safety concerns persist

One person died after being trapped alone in a grain mill last December, according to Columbia County sheriff department records, in an incident that OSHA is still investigating.

Another employee was seriously injured in a fall in the spring of 2020, resulting in an initial $26,718 fine that was later reduced to just over $13,000.

Investigative reporter Naomi Kowles can be reached at news3investigates@wisctv.com.