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Indiana plant’s auger system investigated in worker death


BLUFFTON, Ind. — It appears the power was off but somehow it came back on, sending a maintenance worker at an Indiana ethanol plant to his death in an auger.

That’s according to Bluffton Police Chief Kyle Randall, who said all safety procedures seem to have been followed prior to the June 19 fatality at the Valero Renewable Fuels plant about 25 miles west of Fort Wayne.

Ryan West, 42, of Bainbridge, Ohio, was pronounced dead at the scene. Randall said the auger was part of a conveyor system taking corn from the first floor to the upper level of the ethanol plant. He explained the investigation shows West shut off the power to do some maintenance work on the conveyor system.

When the power came back on, Randall said West was beside the auger, which caught him and took him up to the second floor, where his damaged body was discovered.

“It’s affected a lot of employees, that’s for sure, and it’s affected a lot of first responders,” Randall noted.

He said it appears West, after turning off the electricity to the conveyor system, locked the power switch and had a key to the lock to prevent anyone else from turning it back on. What caused the machine to start running again was not known.

The case was given to the Wells County Coroner’s Office and the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to try to determine how current began flowing again to the machinery. Initially, Randall said he was going to ask Indiana State Police to take over the investigation to make sure nothing criminal happened, but the findings quickly indicated there were no signs of foul play.

“As we got into the investigation a little bit more, we learned more information about what happened, and their services were not going to be required,” he explained.

In a prepared statement, Valero said the company is cooperating fully in the ongoing investigation. According to police, West was working at the plant as an outside contractor for Diversified Industrial Services out of Leesburg, Ohio.

“We extend our deepest condolences to his family, co-workers, and friends. The health and safety of all workers in our facilities is our priority,” Valero stated.

According to OSHA records available online, the plant in April was fined $9,000 for two undisclosed violations after a surprise inspection of the facility. No fine was given for a third violation.

According to the company’s website, Valero – based in San Antonio, Texas – is an international maker and marketer of transportation fuels and other petrochemical products, with about 10,000 employees. Its facilities include 14 ethanol plants in the United States that make a combined 1.73 billion gallons of the corn-derived biofuel annually.

The Bluffton plant opened in 2008 and processes nearly 38 million bushels of corn into 120 million gallons of denatured ethanol and 400,000 tons of distillers grains each year. A dry-grind production method is used in the ethanol-making process at the plant, which has about 60 employees, according to the company.

Valero also has 15 petroleum refineries in the U.S., Canada, and United Kingdom that process up to 3.1 million barrels per day, the company said.