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Grand jury indicts Didion, 6 employees in deadly explosion

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The Didion explosion: One Year Later

MADISON (WKOW) — A federal grand jury is charging six people and Didion Milling Inc. in connection to an explosion at its Cambria plant that killed five and hurt 12 others in May, 2017.

In a press release from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the indictment alleges DMI violated two OSHA standards. The violations were failing to develop and implement a program to prevent and remove combustible grant dust accumulation and failing to install explosion venting or suppression on a dust grain filter collector. 

Beyond the OSHA violations, the indictment alleges fraud. A portion of the release reads: 

The indictment further alleges that DMI; its vice president of operations, Derrick Clark, 48 of Waunakee, Wisconsin; its former food safety superintendent, Shawn Mesner, 44 of Readstown, Wisconsin; its former shift superintendent, Anthony Hess, 54 of Pardeeville, Wisconsin; and its former shift superintendent, Joel Niemeyer, 39 of Baraboo, Wisconsin; 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.

The DMI employees, along with the company's former environmental coordinators, James Lenz, 65 of Deerfield, Wisconsin, and Joseph Winch, 66, of Logansport, Indiana, face another charge. They're indicted for conspiracy to commit federal offenses in order to conceal violations and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies. This conspiracy again involves falsifying logs, but also includes submitting false environmental compliance certifications and falsely testifying to OSHA and the EPA. 

Hess, Clark and DMI are also charged with obstruction of justice for providing false and misleading testimony. 

Two shift superintendents, Michael Bright, 36, of Merrill, and Nicholas Booker, 42, of Cambria, previously pleaded guilty to making false entries in DMI’s cleaning logbook and false entries in DMI’s baghouse log.

If convicted of violating OSHA, DMI may be ordered to pay restitution to victims of the explosion. For the fraud, a defendant will face up to 20 years in prison, up to $1 million in fines and ordered to forfeit assets derived from fraud. For conspiracy or other substantive offenses, a defendant will face up to 20 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. 

Didion responded to the charges, saying in part they're "disappointed" in these "unwarranted charges" and called the explosion a "horrible accident, not a criminal act." Read the full statement below. 

Our thoughts and prayers remain strong for the families, friends, and co-workers of those affected by the accident. The tragic accident deeply affected everyone at Didion.

We are disappointed the government has decided to pursue these unwarranted charges. What happened on May 31, five years ago was a horrible accident, not a criminal act. While we have cooperated fully with the investigation since day one, we now must respond with a strong, vigorous defense for the company and our team.

As a family-owned business for 50 years, we have a culture of safety and quality engrained in all we do. We take care of one another in the Didion family, and we continue to invest in safety and quality because it is the right thing to do.

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