Imperial Sugar resumes refining after Feb. blast

PORT WENTWORTH - Imperial Sugar has resumed refining sugar in Georgia for the first time since a February explosion killed 14 people and workers celebrated Wednesday at the groundbreaking of a new 75,000-square-foot packaging plant to replace the one destroyed.

The refinery near Savannah, the second-largest in the U.S., had to sit idle for months as federal investigators worked to determine the cause of the explosion and workers removed debris and cleaned machinery clogged with hardened sugar.

'It's marvelous,' said employee Beverly O'Neal, a lab analyst who just resumed testing sucrose for purity almost 10 months after the explosion. 'When it happened Feb. 7, we didn't know if we were going to have a job or not.'

Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor said the Georgia plant resumed refining liquid sugar, used mainly by soft-drink makers and other food producers, from supplies remaining in storage earlier this month. The refinery planned to receive its first shipment of raw sugar since the blast Wednesday night, and roll out its first truckloads to customers today.

'The demolition is over, but not our memories,' Sheptor told employees in hardhats and steel-toed shoes. 'The time of mourning has past. This is a new day, a day of beginnings.'

The $200 million rebuilding effort began last month when Imperial Sugar started construction on three towering storage silos. The original silos had to be demolished after intense fire fueled by million of pounds of sugar burned inside them for days after the explosion, which was caused by sugar dust igniting like gunpowder.

Dozens of workers were injured along with the 14 who died.

Sheptor said the refinery is on track to begin refining crystalized sugar, sold under the Dixie Crystals brand, in early 2009. The entire rebuilding project is scheduled to be completed by next September.