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Didion Milling Faces Federal Charges for Fatal 2017 Explosion

Company and employees charged with conspiracy to conceal violations

2 Lisa Selfie December 2020 Headshot

Didion Milling, Inc. (DMI) was charged with federal crimes Thursday for violating safety rules for years and covering up the violations.

The company has been charged with nine crimes, including fraud, conspiracy and two counts of willful safety violations, causing death. The Cambria plant also 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 the federal government decided to pursue "unwarranted charges."

The company failed to regularly clean up combustible dust, leading to a May 2017 explosion that killed five workers and injured 15 more at a mill in Cambria, WI, on May 31, 2017.

A federal grand jury in Madison, WI, returned an indictment charging a corn milling company, a company vice president, two environmental coordinators and three additional supervisors with crimes related to worker safety, fraud, air pollution and obstruction of justice, the Department of Justice announced.

Two former company supervisors previously pleaded guilty to related charges in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

Didion failed to clean up dust, maintain baghouses

According to the indictment handed down on May 11, DMI failed regularly clean dust accumulations from inside the corn mill it owned and operated in Cambria, WI, in order to prevent both food safety and quality issues and to remove accumulations that could fuel combustible dust explosions.

DMI was also required to operate and maintain the baghouses to reduce emissions of grain dust into the environment.

The indictment alleges that DMI was further required to document the completion of routine cleanings inside the mill and the routine monitoring of baghouses to prevent dust emissions outside of the mill.

The indictment alleges that DMI willfully violated two federal safety standards promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) — by by failing to develop and implement a written program to effectively prevent and remove combustible grain dust accumulations and by failing to install explosion venting or explosion suppression on a dust filter collector — thereby causing the deaths of five employees due to a combustible dust explosion at DMI’s corn mill on May 31, 2017.

Employees charged with conspiracy

The indictment further alleges that DMI; its vice president of operations, Derrick Clark, 48 of Waunakee, WI; its former food safety superintendent, Shawn Mesner, 44 of Readstown, WI; its former shift superintendent, Anthony Hess, 54 of Pardeeville, WI; and its former shift superintendent, Joel Niemeyer, 39 of Baraboo, WI; conspired to commit fraud by agreeing to take deceptive measures to conceal the failure to adhere to food safety procedures at the mill, including by falsifying the cleaning logbook to conceal the fact that DMI was not following its written cleaning schedule, so that DMI could maintain its food safety certification and continue to sell its products to food and beverage manufacturers.

DMI, Clark, Mesner, Hess and Niemeyer, along with DMI’s former environmental coordinators James Lenz, 65 of Deerfield, WI, and Joseph Winch, 66, of Logansport, IN, also were indicted for conspiracy to commit federal offenses in order to conceal violations and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies.

The alleged conspiracy included an agreement to falsify cleaning logs and baghouse monitoring logs, submit false environmental compliance certifications, and provide false testimony on matters within the jurisdictions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

DMI and individual defendants are further charged in the indictment with related substantive offenses. Hess, Clark and DMI are charged with obstruction of justice for providing false and misleading testimony to OSHA after the May 2017 explosion concerning their knowledge of combustible dust hazards at DMI.

Former DMI shift superintendents Michael Bright, 36, of Merrill, WI, and Nicholas Booker, 42, of Cambria, WI, previously pleaded guilty to making false entries in DMI’s cleaning logbook and false entries in DMI’s baghouse log, which involved matters within the jurisdiction of OSHA and EPA, respectively.

The OSH Act makes it a misdemeanor for an employer to willfully violate a safety standard, and that violation cause death to any employee. If convicted of the OSH Act offenses, DMI may be ordered to make restitution to victims as compensation for their pecuniary losses, fined, and sentenced to corporate probation with conditions.

If convicted of fraud conspiracy, a defendant may be sentenced to a maximum term of incarceration of 20 years in prison, fined not more than $1 million and ordered to forfeit assets derived from fraud.

Prison time, fines possible if convicted

If convicted of conspiracy to commit federal offenses and other substantive offenses set forth in the indictment, a defendant may face maximum terms of incarceration ranging from five to 20 years in prison and fines up to $1 million depending on the crime of conviction.

A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division made the announcement. EPA’s Criminal Investigative Division is investigating the case.

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