Last Wednesday, May 31, everything seemed normal at
the Didion corn mill in the small village of Cambria, Wisconsin. Like most factories of its type, the
mill operated 24 hours a day, and late that night only sixteen workers remained
as the machinery processed corn into ethanol and other products. Shortly after 11 P. M., a tremendous
explosion sent flames high into the air, knocked out power, and destroyed most
of the processing division of the plant.
Three workers were killed, eleven others were hospitalized with
injuries, and millions of dollars of damage was done.
Ever since 1878, when what was then the world’s
largest grain mill was destroyed by a dust explosion in Minnesota, grain mill
operators have known that the fine particles produced by various milling
operations can combine with air to produce explosive mixtures. Unfortunately, the science of dust
explosions does not appear to be as complete as the science of gas explosions,
for example. Scientists have
studied mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen for flammability, and can predict down
to the third decimal place exactly what the mixture limits are for that
combination of gases to explode.
Dust is different. It comes in all sizes, ranging from particles almost too
large to stay in the air very long, down to submicron bunches of molecules that
take expensive equipment even to detect.
And as one expert interviewed by the Journal
Times of Racine, Wisconsin pointed out, dust lying on the floor is
relatively harmless, but if somebody walks by and kicks up a dust cloud, and
it’s a dry day and the person’s body accumulates electric charge and then
touches a grounded metal object, you can have the fatal combination of enough
dust in the air and an ignition source to cause an explosion, whereas five
seconds earlier there was no way an explosion could occur.
This unpredictability may be one reason that dust
explosions are relatively common compared to other types of major industrial
accidents. An insurance executive
interviewed by the Journal Times said
that over 500 dust explosions at grain processing facilities have occurred
since 1982, killing more than 180 people in all. If all 180 had been killed at once, dust explosions would be
more prominent on the nation’s scope screen of safety concerns, but a typical
grain mill is manned by only a few dozen people at most and so the fatality
numbers are rarely high enough to garner more than the occasional national
Another problem with preventing such explosions is
that they typically do so much damage that the originating cause is often never
determined. When I was about ten
years old, I witnessed a demonstration of a dust explosion performed by a
fireman who traveled to elementary schools to give fire-safety lessons. He had a big box inside of which was a
small container of ordinary baking flour, and a rubber hose was rigged to the
box along with some kind of ignition source—maybe a candle he lit inside the
box. Anyway, when he closed the
hinged lid and blew into the tube, the flour hit the candle, flung the lid
open, and produced a huge yellow whoosh of
flame. It impressed the heck out
of me, but in retrospect it must have been mostly for show, because dust
explosions are not a big domestic fire hazard—almost all of them occur in
Especially when it occurs in a confined area, a dust
explosion’s pressure wave wrecks everything in sight. While investigators can sometimes gather some general idea
of the sequence of events, it is often impossible to locate even the specific
site where the blast originated, let alone to reproduce the conditions that led
to the explosion.
Anything that can reach a dust-air mixture’s ignition
temperature can cause such an explosion.
Static electricity is a favorite scapegoat, and in facilities where
humidity can be raised high enough to eliminate this hazard, it is easy to
control. But for grain processing,
too much humidity can be both expensive to produce and detrimental to the
product, especially in drying operations, so other means of prevention are
employed: ventilation to keep
concentrations of dust below dangerous levels, regular cleaning to prevent dust
piles from accumulating and getting kicked up to cause hazardous clouds, and
explosion-proof electrical fittings and equipment, which can be very expensive
but are needed in certain locations where dust cannot be avoided.
Records indicate that the Didion mill was cited for a
potentially hazardous dust condition back in 2011, but the owners paid a fine
and apparently corrected the problem.
The ongoing investigation may or may not find out what caused the
explosion. But since renewable
fuels were mandated to be mixed into U. S. automotive fuels in 2005 and 2007
with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence
and Security Act of 2007, the U. S. has outstripped Brazil as the world’s
largest producer of ethanol, and most ethanol made in the U. S. comes from
corn. Hence, there are a large
number of corn mills in the U. S. that turn corn into ethanol, such as the
Didion plant did until last Wednesday, and the risk continues that dust
explosions in these mills will injure or kill workers.
To many residents of rural areas, making ethanol from
corn is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal future faced by farm
communities, decimated by children moving to cities, drug problems, and other
woes. It’s too bad that the
process has the inherent and difficult-to-prevent hazard of dust explosions,
but hopefully the industry will learn some lessons from this latest catastrophe
and improve its track record by good safety and housekeeping practices.
The safety culture of leading oil refiners is a gold
standard that grain mills could aspire to. Oil refinery operators have learned how to handle millions
of gallons of hot, pressurized, flammable products with an exemplary safety
record overall, but only at the price of what seems to outsiders to be ridiculously
involved and rigorous safety practices.
It may be time for owners of grain mills to look to their more
experienced compatriots in the petrochemical and refining industries for
guidelines as to how to keep dust from killing their workers and wrecking their
Sources: I referred to an Associated Press
report on the Cambria explosion (not to be confused with the Cambrian explosion
of new species over 500 million years ago!) on the ABC News website at http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/wisconsin-corn-mill-blast-unclear-worker-missing-47784377,
a Racine Journal Times report at http://journaltimes.com/news/state-and-regional/company-officials-mum-on-what-caused-explosion-at-cambria-plant/article_87100076-3508-5663-ae4d-9fd04f60341e.html,
and Wikipedia articles on dust explosions and ethanol fuel in the U. S.