Families of four of the six workers killed last year in a grain-dust explosion in Atchison, Kan., have filed wrongful-death suits in Jackson County Circuit Court.
The lawsuits come a month after Bartlett Grain Co. LP announced plans to create a memorial in Atchison for the six men. That plan, in turn, has drawn strong criticism from one victim’s family, who called the idea a public relations ploy.
“As an alternative to Bartlett spending monies to erect a memorial, it would be our recommendation that Bartlett invest in an extensive safety program designed to prevent another tragedy,” wrote Zoe and Kevin Bock in a response to the plan. They are the mother and stepfather of Chad Roberts, 20, who died in the explosion.
The lawsuits, filed on Monday, name Bob Knief, a Bartlett senior vice president at the time, and other Bartlett employees as defendants.
The cases were brought on behalf of Roberts, Ryan Federinko, 21, Curtis Field, 21, and John Burke, 24. They were all killed in the explosion on Oct. 29, 2011. Two other workers killed in the explosion — grain inspectors Travis Keil, 34, and Darrek Klahr, 43 — were not named.
Knief and other unnamed Bartlett employees “issued directives that displayed a knowing or voluntary disregard” for the safety and health of the workers who were killed, the suits allege.
The allegations are similar to charges made in April by federal safety officials, who accused Bartlett of willfully ignoring workplace rules before the explosion. They also proposed $406,000 in fines.
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said at the time that the “deaths of these six workers could have been prevented had the grain elevator’s operators addressed hazards that are well-known in this industry.”
In April, Knief, now Bartlett’s president, said that the government’s allegations were “flawed,” and he said he took “extreme exception” to charges that any workplace violations were willful, as the government alleged.
The company has contested the proposed fines and is preparing to make its case in an administrative hearing.
On Tuesday, the company issued the same statement and added that “we continue to believe that Bartlett employees acted reasonably and appropriately at all times. While we are just seeing the suit and its allegations, it appears to be based on nothing more or less than the (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) citations, with which we take total exception.”
Monday’s suits allege that elevator was at or near capacity at the time of the explosion and that daily train transfers were required to keep the elevator operating. The families said workers were routinely required to work 60 to 80 hours a week.
In addition, the families allege, the elevator had no emergency action plan or adequate alarm system and workers were not properly trained to get rid of the combustible dust that led to the explosion.
The suits allege dust cleaning practices and electrical connections at the plant were unsafe and inadequate.
About a month before the lawsuit was filed, Bartlett sent the victims’ families a letter informing them of a memorial the company planned to build in Atchison to remember the six dead. The memorial plan has drawn criticism from one victim’s family.
The memorial would overlook the Missouri River and the grain elevator, the company letter informed families.
That doesn’t sit well with the Bocks. They were surprised that the company would move forward with a plan without consulting them. The Bocks were also upset at a memorial being built by a company they hold responsible for the deaths.
“I’ve got a problem with that,” Kevin Bock said.
Bartlett said in an email Tuesday that it had no comment about the memorial “other than to say it always was intended to be a gesture from fellow employees. While the families were informed out of respect, no publicity was desired by Bartlett nor will we discuss it publicly now.”
In the letter to families, Knief said: “Our sole intention is to recognize and appreciate the men.”
Atchison city officials said they had been approached about a memorial, but nothing formal had been submitted. Any such request would go through public hearings.
Kevin Bock said he will oppose the plan.
“We’re upset over the fact that they’re going to spend the money here,” he said, “and they could not spend the money before.”