Tom Barton, the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News, blasts the behavior and attitude of the Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor and other senior executives in the wake of last week’s Senate hearing and the July 25 announcement by OSHA of a $8.8 million penalty against the firm. Thirteen inviduals were killed in the combustible-dust disaster, three remain hospitalized and 33 other workers were injured.
In Heads should roll at Imperial, Barton writes about how two former Savannah families used to own and operate the sugar refinery:
“…workers were treated like extended family members, not like hired help who should accept deplorable conditions in return for their paychecks.
“I would all but guarantee that William Sprague Jr. and William Sprague III, the last two local CEOs, wouldn’t have looked the other way if they saw discarded material littering their plant or piles of hazardous sugar dust and puddles of liquid sugar that jeopardized safety. These good Georgia gentlemen would have ordered it cleaned up immediately -even if it meant shutting down and taking a personal financial hit. That’s one of the beauties of local ownership.
Then, the Texas-based Imperial bought the plant in 1997.
Barton’s scathing remarks capture his level of disgust for the firm’s top brass which should be held responsible for their willful disregard for the lives of the workers and contractors, and he mocks the shallow gesture by the firm to raise money for a memorial to the deceased workers which will be built on company grounds.
The Savannah Morning News editorial by Tom Barton is reprinted here for you convenience but also available at: Heads should roll at Imperial
Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor knows at least one key skill in the dog-eat-dog corporate world: Finger-pointing. Maybe it’s a Texas thing. Or maybe the top brass at the Imperial Sugar company’s corporate headquarters in Sugar Land has lost a few more marbles.
Those are the only explanations I can come with to determine why tickets were sold at $40 a pop to Friday night’s benefit ball at the Savannah Marriott Riverfront, apparently to help pay for a memorial on company grounds to 13 refinery workers who were allegedly killed by willful and flagrant corporate offenses over six long years. I find that offensive.
While I have no problem with refinery workers who want to have a good time – Lord knows, they deserve it – I’m shocked that Imperial Sugar apparently isn’t picking up the entire tab for a memorial for workers killed in the Feb. 7 explosion. Georgians are generous people. The entire community was shocked and saddened by the unnecessary loss of life on Feb. 7. Many still want to help and open their wallets. But all of the proceeds from Friday’s gala, expected to top $20,000, should go into the survivors’ fund to help pay current and future family expenses. Not a single dime should pay for something that also stands as a testimony to corporate greed and bumbling.
In Georgia, people take care of their own. When the Oxnards and the Spragues – two old and respected Savannah families – owned and operated the sugar refinery, and before it was sold to the Texas crowd in 1997, workers were treated like extended family members, not like hired help who should accept deplorable conditions in return for their paychecks. I find it hard to believe that either family would have tolerated the shockingly poor housekeeping noted by both the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Both agencies investigated the causes of the Feb. 7 blast.
In fact, I would all but guarantee that William Sprague Jr. and William Sprague III, the last two local CEOs, wouldn’t have looked the other way if they saw discarded material littering their plant or piles of hazardous sugar dust and puddles of liquid sugar that jeopardized safety. These good Georgia gentlemen would have ordered it cleaned up immediately -even if it meant shutting down and taking a personal financial hit. That’s one of the beauties of local ownership. It’s not a case of out of sight of the CEO, out of mind for the company. There’s no cover-your-behind memos to write or bucks to pass.
It’s unclear where the buck stops with Imperial’s current CEO, John Sheptor, or the former CEO, Robert Peiser, who remains as vice chairman of Imperial’s board. Sheptor was in town Friday. In a WTOC-TV interview, he trash talked his company’s vice president of operations, Graham H. Graham, the whistleblower who outed Imperial’s shockingly lax attitude toward housekeeping. Sheptor called his subordinate, who testified last Tuesday on Capitol Hill, a liar. He told the TV station that at no time did Graham bring to his attention concerns about combustible dust hazards. Then Sheptor said he wanted to know why his underling didn’t just shut down the refinery.
Say what? A middling executive, a man just hired in November 2007, was supposed to single-handedly pull the plug on the largest refinery of one of the largest processors of refined sugar in the United States, bringing production and profit to a screeching halt, without getting the green light from Peiser or Sheptor (former chief operating officer before being named CEO on Jan. 29)?
Sheptor apparently knows one key survival skill in the dog-eat-dog corporate world: Finger-pointing.
Of course, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss essentially said the same thing last Tuesday, when he verbally mugged Graham. But I’ll agree with Chambliss on one point – if things were as bad as the feds documented, then plant should have been closed until it was cleaned. Except it should have been shuttered long before Graham arrived. Maybe even in 2002. That’s when OSHA said dangerous dust was building up. It would be shocking if heads don’t roll back in Texas. They should.
Thirteen dead workers in Georgia, $8.8 million in OSHA fines and potential trips to a federal penitentiary for criminal violations of law aren’t just another day at the office or boardroom. Still, no matter whether it’s in a bedroom or a prison cell, at least the big wheels at Imperial will have pillows to sleep on at night. Not so the workers who didn’t have to die. They deserve to be memorialized. They deserve to have their survivors cared for. They deserve to have their employer take care of its own.
Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.