Pellet mill owner meeting with OSHA officials to discuss mill explosion citations

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AUGUSTA — Geneva Wood Fuels LLC of Strong faces six citations and proposed fines of $27,000 after an explosion rocked the mill last August.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for six “alleged serious violations of workplace safety standards following an August 2009 explosion at the wood pellet manufacturing plant in Strong.”

Plant owner Jonathan Kahn of Chicago was surprised by Tuesday’s announcement because he is scheduled to discuss the issue with OSHA officials in Augusta next Tuesday and nothing has been finalized.

“These are proposed fines. Both sides are meeting to talk about what happened Tuesday. Many things can happen,” he said of the potential results. He said he intends to disagree with some of OSHA findings and expects not all the fines will remain.

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The company was previously given 15 business days to respond to the citations and proposed penalties by either complying, participating in an informal conference with the OSHA director or by contesting the findings.

It responded by asking for an informal conference, he said. A meeting was supposed to have happened three weeks ago but OSHA officials needed to postpone it, he said.

“Nothing has been determined. They are still working on it as far as I know. No fines have been issued,” he said.

OSHA maintains that “employees were exposed to potential dust explosions and fires stemming from deficiencies in the construction, design or location of the plant’s wood pellet processing system, the use of an unapproved spark-producing shop vacuum in a Class II, Division 2 location and not training employees on specific work procedures to protect themselves from the explosive properties of wood dust.”

The company is also being cited for unapproved lifting devices, missing safety signs and missing guardrails.

After replacing machinery left at the former Forster Manufacturing mill, securing loads of wood and wood pellet customers, Geneva Wood Fuels LLC opened in March 2009. Expectations were to process more than 100,000 tons of home-heating pellets yearly under the brand name of Maine’s Choice, employ 25-30 local people and purchase local wood, and revitalize the timber community in and around Strong, Kahn said a couple months before opening.

Five months later on Aug. 8, an explosion heard as far as away Farmington, about 10 miles away, did an estimated $8 million in damage to the plant and was ruled an accident by state fire investigators.

Kahn is committed to rebuilding the mill and is hoping to reopen it by late spring-early summer.

“We’re working hard to get it up and running,” he said.

Combustible dusts, including wood dust, are fine particles that present a potentially catastrophic explosion hazard when suspended in the air in certain conditions. OSHA is working to develop a combustible dust standard.

“Combustible dust is a real and potentially deadly presence in many types of workplaces,” said William Coffin, OSHA’s area director for Maine. “Addressing it requires ongoing attention and effort, but proper precautions can prevent or minimize the possibility of a devastating explosion or fire.”

Two Wilton men, Jim Smith, 41, and Gregg Toothaker, 42, survived the August explosion. They were on the building roof checking on a steam vent when the explosion occurred.

Smith was near a stairway and was knocked to his knees. He saw Toothaker fly through the air and a 50-foot fireball shoot out. The roof to the side of them blew 3 feet up off the iron rafters. They were able to run across the roof to the other side of the building and down a fire escape.

Windows and walls were blown out and the siding on the building came off. Wood-framed windows were lying on the ground in the road, the men said after the explosion.

abryant@sunjournal.com

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