Didion Milling, plant officials charged in deadly 2017 Wisconsin plant explosion

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
FILE - Part of the Didion Milling Plant in Cambria, Wis., lies in ruins following an explosion in this June 1, 2017 photo,. A federal grand jury has charged a milling company with fraud and conspiracy in connection with the explosion that killed five workers in 2017. Court records indicate the grand jury indictment was announced Thursday, May 12, 2022, against Didion Milling Inc. and company leaders. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

A milling company that not only boasts of the speed and efficiency of its newly rebuilt corn mill, but of the firm's commitment to safety, has been charged with fraud and conspiracy in connection with an explosion that left five workers dead in 2017.

A federal grand jury in Madison handed down an indictment on May 11, 2022, alleging that Didion Milling Inc. (DMI) and company leaders willfully violated two federal safety acts by failing to regularly clean dust accumulations from inside the mill that ultimately lead to a combustible dust explosion that killed five employees and injured more than a dozen others who were working in the mill the evening of May 31, 2017.

Those dying in the blast include Duelle Block, Robert Goodenow, Carlos "Charly" Nunez, Angel Reyes and Pawel Tordoff.

MORE: Fifth plant worker dies from injuries at Didion Mill explosion

MORE: Didion Milling: Filter blew off apparatus before plant explosion in May

The indictment against DMI and company leaders alleges that between March 2013 and February 2018, the company failed to keep up with federally required cleanings at the Cambria mill and covered up those shortcomings by falsifying records to make it appear to government agencies (OSHA and the EPA) that the cleanings had been performed.  The federal grand jury also found that dust filters in the plant weren't properly ventilated.

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division said the indictment named company leaders Vice President of Operations Derrick Clark, former food safety superintendent Shawn Mesner, former shift superintendents Anthony Hess and Joel Niemeyer as conspiring to commit fraud by agreeing to take deceptive measures in concealing to follow food safety procedures at the mill, including falsifying the cleaning logbook to hide the fact that DMI was not following a written cleaning schedule, so that the company could maintain its food safety certification and continue to sell its products to food and beverage manufacturers.

Along with Clark, Mesner, Hess and Niemeyer, former environmental coordinators James Lenz and Joseph Winch were also charged with agreeing to conceal violations and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies, including providing false testimony to OSHA and EPA officials.

DMI, Hess and Clark were further charged with providing false and misleading information to OSHA after the explosion concerning their knowledge of combustible dust hazards at the Cambria plant.

According to the document, two former DMI superintendents Micheal Bright and Nicholas Booker have already entered guilty pleas to making false entries into DMI's cleaning logbook and false entries into the plant's baghouse log. They are not charged in the indictment.

Didion officials issued a statement saying the explosion was an accident and that they were disappointed that the federal government decided to pursue "unwarranted charges."

"What happened on May 31, five years ago was a horrible accident, not a criminal act," the statement said. "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."

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Didion more than $1.8 million in connection with the explosion in the months following the explosion.

MORE: Didion Milling faces more than $1.8 million in fines from May blast

MORE: Wisconsin mill explosion victim continues recovery

If convicted, DMI may be ordered to make restitution to victims as compensation for their losses, or imprisoned up to 20 years and fined up to $1 million for each offense. The indictment seeks all of the profits Didion has made off of the alleged conspiracy.