Monday, September 25, 2023

In year since Foundation Food Group nitrogen leak, grief, litigation, and the plant sold

Photo by Scott Rogers/The Times Two Hall County Firefighters enter a back door Jan. 29, 2021, at the former Foundation Food Group in Gainesville, Ga. A day earlier six people were killed following a liquid nitrogen leak at the plant.

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By Nick Watson

The Times

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — A year has passed since six workers died by asphyxia from liquid nitrogen exposure inside Foundation Food Group.

Shortly after the shift began Jan. 28, 2021, the odorless and colorless liquid nitrogen started to displace the oxygen in the room after a freezer malfunctioned.

Three maintenance workers walked into the freezer room and were “overcome immediately” by the exposure to the nitrogen, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Those maintenance workers and two others died immediately. A sixth worker died en route to the hospital, according to OSHA.

The six killed were: Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45, of Gainesville; Corey Alan Murphy, 35, of Clermont; Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28, of Gainesville; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41, of Dawsonville; Victor Vellez, 38, of Gainesville; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28, of Gainesville.

The leak caused more than 130 people to be transported by school bus to Free Chapel for evaluation. Twelve people, including firefighters, were taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, for respiratory complaints.

Hispanic Alliance-GA executive director Vanesa Sarazua said they gave $5,000 to the families of the deceased as well as mental health support.

“We’ve worked with a couple of families through this year and see that they’re still suffering the loss of their family member as they’re trying to continue living,” Sarazua said. “It’s really tough on them. Their hearts are broken in a million pieces, some of them are communicating today.”

Reflecting on the anniversary of this disaster, Sarazua said she believed there is still a state of disbelief that something like this could happen.

“It was a hurtful day for everybody, and I think that we all felt for those families and as a community, we don’t ever want to see something like that happen to any family of ours locally,” Sarazua said.

Sarazua said she believed the event rippled through the entire community, including the families, workers and people across the poultry industry.

“We are hopeful that the industry has learned a lesson that it would never repeat itself,” said Art Gallegos Jr., president of the Latinos Conservative Organization.

Gallegos said a Peach State Bank and Trust fund for the families spearheaded by LCO has raised $17,722.

An investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board remains open. In July, OSHA announced 59 alleged violations against Foundation Food Group, Messer LLC and two other companies that could lead to nearly $1 million in penalties.

The allegations against Foundation Food Group included “exposing workers to thermal injuries and suffocation hazards resulting from the uncontrolled release of liquid nitrogen” as well as not training employees on how to detect nitrogen.

Messer, one of the largest chemical gas companies in the world, entered an informal settlement agreement with OSHA Aug. 13, while the other three companies contested their citations. Messer still faces multiple wrongful death lawsuits in Gwinnett County filed by the families of the workers killed in the leak.

The latest development in the lawsuit came in November, when Gwinnett County State Court Judge Emily Brantley called Messer’s conduct “shockingly unacceptable” after the discovery of destroyed evidence. Brantley granted sanctions against Messer after a piece of equipment was discarded at a different plant and not disclosed during earlier discovery attempts by the victims’ families.

Attorney Rustin Smith, who has collaborated with attorney Matt Cook and other lawyers in representing the families, declined to comment on the status of the case when reached for comment.

Gold Creek purchase

Gold Creek Foods announced Sept. 10 it had struck a deal to acquire almost all of Foundation Food Group’s assets.

Though The Times requested an interview, Gold Creek Foods instead sent a written statement in response to the interview topics provided.

The company said it retained roughly 1,250 Foundation Food Group employees, with 120 of those employees coming from the Memorial Park Drive plant.

“Since then, we have added 70 jobs at the Memorial Park facility, with expectations of creating 40 more with an expansion to the facility we expect to be complete by December 2022,” Gold Creek President Michael Sheets said in a statement.

Sheets said Gold Creek gave former Foundation Food Group employees credit for prior service in the company’s 401(k) plan, a benefit that Foundation Food Group employees did not have before.

Regarding the mental and physical toll felt by the surviving workers, Sheets said they have “continued efforts to provide access to local churches and pastors to support our team members as needed.”

In response to a request for an interview, Sur Legal Collaborative, a legal advocacy group that worked with the Foundation Food Group employees following the nitrogen leak, sent a statement.

“To the workers impacted by the leak, we know today will bring back some very painful memories for you and we would like to provide you with some hotlines and resources you can call for support,” Sur Legal said in a statement. “Mental health, just like any other body ailment or illness, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, is important to take care of so please seek out the help you need during this difficult time.”

Sur Legal said it admired “the bravery of all the poultry workers and their families” who spoke with OSHA officials about the events that day and other hazards.

“We will continue to be by your side as we hold these companies accountable for the deaths of your coworkers and the harm, both physical and mental, they have inflicted upon all of you,” Sur Legal said in a statement.

The legal advocates called on President Joe Biden’s administration to enact stronger protections for essential workers including extending the statute of limitations beyond six months for OSHA to investigate.

Sur Legal also called on the president to create: a “pathway to citizenship” for essential workers; a “private right of action” for workers to hold employers accountable in court for violating worker safety laws; and a longer “statute of limitations beyond 30 days for workers to come forward if they have been retaliated against.”

The Times requested interviews with the Hall County firefighters and EMS that responded to the leak.

“Given that the incident remains in active litigation, it would not be prudent for a county staff person to discuss the matter with the press at this time,” county spokeswoman Katie Crumley wrote in an email.

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