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Two Employees Convicted In Wisconsin Corn Mill Explosion

A federal jury convicted “current and former Didion Milling Inc. officials of workplace safety, environmental, fraud and obstruction of justice charges following a deadly explosion in 2017 at a corn mill that Didion Milling operated in Cambria, Wisconsin,” a U.S. Department of Justice press release states.

The explosion resulted in the deaths of five workers and seriously injured others.

“Didion Milling Vice President of Operations, Derrick Clark, was convicted of conspiring to falsify documents, making false Clean Air Act compliance certifications as Didion’s ‘responsible official’ and obstructing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) investigation of the explosion at the corn mill by making false and misleading statements during a deposition,” the press release states.

“Former Didion Milling Food Safety Superintendent, Shawn Mesner, was convicted of participating in a fraud conspiracy against Didion Milling’s customers and conspiring to obstruct and mislead OSHA for his role in falsifying sanitation records used at Didion to track the completion of cleanings designed to remove accumulations of corn dust at the mill,” the press release added.

The Associated Press reports:

Didion Milling pleaded guilty in September to charges that its employees falsified environmental and safety compliance records for years leading up to the explosion. The company agreed to pay a $1 million fine and $10.25 million to the estates of the five workers who were killed.

Clark was convicted on Friday of making false Clean Air Act compliance certifications and lying to investigators during a deposition. Mesner was found guilty of conspiring to mislead Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators by lying on sanitation records that tracked cleanings meant to remove corn dust from the mill.

“Derrick Clark and Shawn Messner chose to intentionally mislead OSHA investigators and made false statements about their knowledge of working conditions at the plant to protect themselves and cover their mistakes,” OSHA Regional Administrator Bill Donovan said in a statement.

Sentencing hearings have not yet been scheduled for either of the men. At least five other Didion employees have pleaded guilty or been convicted of charges including concealing environmental violations, lying to investigators and falsifying cleaning logs.

Cont. from the DOJ:

Grain dust can be explosive, and OSHA safety standards require grain milling facilities like the Didion Milling corn mill to develop and implement housekeeping programs, including regular cleanings, to reduce grain dust accumulation. Didion Milling maintained its master sanitation schedule to record the performance of required cleanings. Clark and Mesner were convicted of participating in a conspiracy to falsify that cleaning log, including directing others to backfill entries for uncompleted cleanings.

Federal law gives OSHA six months to gather facts and issue appropriate citations after a safety violation occurrence. In matters involving worker deaths, evidence that corporate managers knew about violations can result in issuance of a “willful” citation and a criminal referral.  OSHA subpoenaed Clark’s testimony in September 2017, during the corn mill explosion fatality investigation. Clark gave false and misleading testimony about his knowledge of problems with the dust collection system at Didion’s corn mill, his knowledge of explosion hazards and his knowledge of prior fires at the facility.

Additionally, a permit issued under the Clean Air Act required compliance by Didion Milling at its corn mill including the operation of baghouses equipment, which are designed to limit the release of particulate matter like corn dust into the environment. The permit also required a “responsible official,” a senior manager with authority, to periodically certify the mill’s compliance with air pollution control permit conditions and disclose known permit violations. Clark falsely certified Didion’s compliance without disclosing that baghouse logs – documentation on maintenance of baghouse equipment – had been systematically falsified to conceal permit violations.

Didion Milling sold its milled corn products to food and beverage manufacturers. Sanitation at food manufacturing facilities is necessary for food safety, and excessive accumulations of grain dust can cause food safety problems. Through deceptive means, including repeatedly presenting a falsified cleaning log to food safety auditors, Mesner conspired to deceive Didion’s customers about its sanitation practices. As food safety superintendent, Mesner directed operations personnel to falsify the log to make it appear as if the cleaning schedule was being followed.

The jury on Friday also acquitted former Didion Milling environmental manager James Lenz of charges relating to falsifying environmental records and conspiring to make false statements and obstruct agency proceedings.

WMTV aired this video report:


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