CAMBRIA — Didion Milling’s rebuild remains on track for early 2019 completion, company leaders say.
Almost a year after an explosion devastated the corn grinding operation and resulted in the deaths of five employees, Didion Vice President Dale Drachenberg reported significant progress in new construction despite the long winter season.
“Overall, it’s going really well,” he said. “There are certain weeks where the weather has been challenging, but the teams involved in construction have been really flexible, getting the job done and keeping us on schedule.”
Didion’s main milling building is finished from the outside, as construction crews shifted their focus recently to the building’s interior and to the company’s processing building that sits beside it, Drachenberg said. Later, crews will start building a warehouse facility for the mill.
Didion’s milling property at 501 Williams St. covers about 27 acres and was assessed at $7.7 million prior to the mill’s May 31 explosion, according to Columbia County land records. That valuation does not include its nearby ethanol plant, which the explosion did not impact, Drachenberg said. Didion’s real estate taxes were about $226,000 on the mill property in 2017, the company also reported.
Didion would not provide a financial estimate of structural damage caused by the explosion or what it expects to spend in the rebuild, but Didion stated in an email that it expects to be “fully operational” before April 2019. At the construction site, Didion spokeswoman Aisha Bachlani explained the company is still receiving grain from local farmers, though the company would not estimate its current milling production.
Prior to the incident, Didion ground 25 million bushels a year between its ethanol and mill plants, according to the company email. When the new mill is up and running, the company said it anticipates “getting back to that level within the first year of operation.”
At its facilities in Johnson Creek, Markesan and Cambria, Didion had employed 235 people prior to the incident and will “need to have about that number after the rebuild,” the company said in the email. Didion currently employs about 150 people and has 45 open positions, which it hopes to fill prior to the rebuild’s completion.
“So many people have a hand in the rebuild,” Bachlani said. “It will be exciting to see the final effort because it has involved everyone,” including various construction teams, the company’s safety and executive teams and marketing department.
“We’re focusing on the inside, making sure that structurally everything is going up in a safe way, and that we’re being thorough with everything,” she added. “When we say it’s the latest and greatest technology and ‘state of art,’ it’s not a cliché: It will be the newest mill in America. I would say that’s something really important to us both from a safety perspective and a business perspective.”
Cambria Village President Glen Williams said the board receives regular updates from Didion regarding its rebuild. The next board meeting set for May 7.
The village approved Didion’s initial site plans in December, and the village hired the Waukesha-based consulting firm RW Management Group to review Didion’s fire protection and safety measures.
“They’re moving very fast,” Williams said of the rebuild. “They’ve been very cooperative, and as far as we know, because it will be state of the art, it will be much safer” than the previous milling operation. Village officials also wanted to ensure abatement of noise and excess light in the new milling operation, and Didion is abiding those requests, Williams added.
Several employees who had worked in Cambria were moved to Didion’s other facilities, Williams said, “so it will be helpful to them to get their jobs back in Cambria.”
“The fact they’re staying here and staying with a large employer for this community is awesome,” Williams said. “We’re very happy to see them not leave.”
The cause of the explosion remains under investigation, Didion stated. Late last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued fines to Didion totaling $1.8 million; Didion disputed those fines, which remain under appeal.