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Imperial Sugar, site of deadly 2008 explosion, helps rescue two chilly manatees

David Pendered

By David Pendered

Almost 12 years after a deadly explosion at a sugar plant near Savannah, the Imperial Sugar refinery is being commended for helping to rescue a manatee and her calf. The two animals were transported to SeaWorld Orlando for treatment and are to be released.

manatee rescue, imperial sugar

To rescue two manatees taking shelter from cool water near a warm-water discharge pipe at the Imperial Sugar refinery, workers stretch a net across the mouth of a waterway where the animals were sheltered. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research. Rescue conducted under USFWS permit 770191.

The two animals had taken refuge from cool water temperatures by huddling around a pipe that discharges warm water from the Imperial Sugar refinery into the Savannah River.

The flow of warm water was scheduled to be shut off during a routine maintenance procedure that was to start on Thanksgiving Day. The company opted to minimize the work to be done and provided staff during the holiday to help the animals during the rescue procedure.

Wildlife officials with Georgia and Florida commended Imperial Sugar’s managers:

  • “They went to extreme measures to continue to provide the warm water for these manatees until we could rescue them,” Mark Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement.
  • “The service appreciates the many conservation partners from Georgia and Florida as well as Imperial Sugar plant staff that stepped up to do their part for this large female and her dependent male calf, especially around the Thanksgiving holiday,” Terri Calleson, Florida manatee recovery coordinator with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in the statement. “This was, without a doubt, the right team for the job.”

The statement from DNR did not include a comment from any with Imperial Sugar, nor does there appear to be a mention on the company’s website.

The rescue team was comprised of Georgia DNR; SeaWorld; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and Savannah State University, according to the statement.

The mother manatee weighs 1,530 pounds and her male offspring weighed 425 pounds, according to DNR’s statement. Both were taken to SeaWorld Orlando. The calf began nursing as soon as the pair reached SeaWorld. The plan is to release them soon.


A manatee that’s been rescued from a temporary shelter from cool water is to be loaded onto the boat on the first step of a journey to SeaWorld Orlando, and then back to sea. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research. Rescue conducted under USFWS permit 770191.

The two animals joined another manatee rescued from Georgia and taken to SeaWorld. A mother and calf were recovered a few days before Thanksgiving, by many of the same organizations, from a tidal pond on a golf course on St. Simons Island. The mother survived, but the calf died from the cold stress, according to DNR’s statement.

In 2008, the Imperial Sugar refinery was the site of what federal investigators described as a, “huge explosion and fire” fueled by, “massive accumulations of combustible sugar dust through the packaging building.”

The casualty list included 14 dead and 38 others who were injured, according to the report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.

According to the findings:

  • “The investigation found that the initial explosion was caused by ignition of dangerous concentrations of explosive sugar dust within an enclosed conveyor belt beneath the sugar silos. The initial explosion lofted sugar dust in other parts of the facility, propagating secondary dust explosions and fires that resulted in the fatalities and injuries and heavily damaged the site.”

The incident happened Feb. 7, 2008 and the final report was released Sept. 24, 2009.

David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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