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Wisconsin corn mill owners plead to federal charges in fatal explosion, will pay $11.25 million

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A milling company has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges that employees at a Wisconsin corn plant falsified records in the years leading up to a fatal corn dust explosion.

The plea deal calls for Didion Milling Inc. to pay a $1 million fine and $10.25 million to the estates of the five workers who were killed in the blast at the company’s Cambria mill in May 2017, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Thursday.

The company also has agreed to a five-year “organizational probation” and must allow federal inspectors to visit the mill without advance notice up to twice a year.

A federal grand jury indicted Didion last year on nine counts, including falsifying records, fraud and conspiracy. According to court documents, Didion shift employees and supervisors knowingly falsified logbooks inspectors use to determine whether the plant was handling corn dust safely and complying with dust-cleaning rules from 2015 until May 2017.

Corn dust is combustible; if concentrations in the air reach a high level, a spark or other ignition source can cause it to catch fire and explode. Federal regulations require grain mill operators to perform regular cleanings to reduce dust accumulations that could fuel a blast.

Didion last month agreed to pay the Wisconsin Department of Justice $940,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging multiple regulatory violations at the Cambria plant.

Didion CEO Riley Didion said in a statement late last week that the company was thankful to have reached the plea deal and was pleased most of the financial settlement will go to the workers’ estates, calling the explosion “heartbreaking.”

“What happened in Cambria in May of 2017 was tragic, and we continue to offer prayers for those who were affected,” he said. “With this agreement in place, we can devote our full attention to serving our team, community, farmers, and customers with the highest standards of safety and quality.”

Three Didion officials — Derrick Clark, who was vice president of operations; Shawn Mesner, who was food safety superintendent; and James Lentz, who was environmental manager — are scheduled to stand trial Monday in federal court in Madison on charges that include conspiracy, fraud and falsifying records.

Three other Didion employees — a pair of day shift supervisors and an environmental coordinator — have pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and obstruction charges since June 15.

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