Blame laid on Kaiser for blast

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 25, 1999

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / October 25, 1999

GRAMERCY – Testimony provided Monday and Tuesday by an electrical consultant for Kaiser Aluminum placed the blame for the July 5 explosion squarely in Kaiser’s lap.

Michael McAnelly, an electrical engineer and president of Power & Control System International Inc., told a federal panel this week thatshortcomings in the system which had been brought to Kaiser’s attention years ago, but ignored, led to the July 5 blast.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, under the chairmanship ofTony Oppegard, wrapped up hearings Thursday at the St. James ParishCourthouse in Convent.

According to a transcript of Monday’s testimony, McAnelly revealed he was brought in by Kaiser administration after the explosion and taken into an area restricted by MSHA, even against Kaiser, to take photographs.

That act by Kaiser may bring a citation against the plant administration.

In 1989 and 1990, Power & Control System (PCS) worked as a consulting electrical engineering firm at the Convent plant. In 1990, the company didthe last coordinating study of the plant’s electrical loop system, designed to keep vital control systems online, even in case of an outage.

The company found that a ground fault would have the ability to knock out the entire electrical system, with little ability to prevent a widespread outage.

“Well, it was almost hard to believe what we discovered after looking at it,” McAnelly testified. “A fault on any one of these less critical areaswould shut the whole works down. That didn’t make sense.”McAnelly also found a 1981 General Electric study which recommended the same changes. “So, we were pretty shocked to see a system like this thatwas so susceptible to one fault taking the whole thing down,” he said.

In response to the problem, on PCS’s recommendation, new relay systems were installed, which also included a computer recording system.

According to McAnelly’s testimony, the system’s memory tapes were erased after the explosion, possibly destroying vital evidence. He addedthat immediately after hearing of the explosion, McAnelly called Kaiser and asked if the event reports in the memory had been downloaded and was told it had been. However, later they learned the plant’s battery had beenallowed to go dead and the memory had been lost. Five days afterexplosion, though, he noted the battery was still operating, yet the memory tapes were still missing.

In addition, McAnelly said, he was brought into an MSHA-restricted area of the plant by Kaiser officials to provide an estimate of repairs needed and allowed to take photographs.

As an alternative view on handling unexpected power outages, McAnelly also testified Monday that outages in September 1998 and January 1999 had quite different results.

“But in ’98 – and we know this – it was shortly before the strike happened, there was a vacuum cleaner left up on top of a rectifier transformer at LaRoche,” he said. “They were doing maintenance on atransformer or something and a vacuum cleaner was left up there. I’m notsure if it shut the whole facility down, but it tripped all of the breakers.

They were able, by fast response, to get back in there and get the system back in service.”Another outage in January 1999 also had a happier ending, McAnelly testified, when an overload of the gas turbines “cascaded the whole system down,” but they were able to get the system back up without problem.

The heart of Monday’s testimony came, that afternoon when McAnelly related his unauthorized visit on July 10 to Switch House Number Two.

First, he noted, if the system were designed properly it would take only a single unit down. If breakers were located on the incoming cable installedto all the switch houses, a single fault would hardly affect the entire plant.

He related how he saw a burn mark where a spark or flash from a fault hit dangling wires which would not normally have been dangling, except they had earlier been secured only with double-sided tape.

“I’ve got pictures inside the cubicle where I see a burn mark and it appears that a fault flashed from the right hand phase over to the wall of the cubicle and involved a wall in the cubicle. When I was there, I saw CTwires hanging all over and they appeared to be burned.”McAnelly added that a Kaiser attorney later told him the wires had been secured with “sticky backs,” or double-sided adhesive nylon tape.

Later in Monday’s testimony, he commented on how Kaiser might have prevented the July 5 explosion.

McAnelly said the operator would have to restore power in Switch House Number One, the most critical part. There, he would trip the circuitbreaker and then contact the powerhouse operator to close the loop feeder.

“That could have been done in five to 10 minutes,” he added.

On the following day of testimony, Oppegard went back to the subject of McAnelly’s unauthorized visit to the blast site on July 10.

When McAnelly attempted to place his digital photographs taken on that visit, Mark Savit representing Kaiser objected and said all documents and photos McAnelly turned over to MSHA were created under contract with Kaiser, and the contracts banned him from releasing them without Kaiser’s prior authorization.

Oppegard responded that since Kaiser was not supposed to be there in the first place, shouldn’t Kaiser waive any objections it has? Savit retorted, “That’s the kind of thing a judge decides. If there is anissue that needs to be decided, we are going to someone who can.”Oppegard later said Kaiser probably will be cited for entering an MSHA- restricted zone without permission.

Also on Tuesday, McAnelly submitted evidence that Kaiser planned to blame the explosion on McAnelly’s firm.

A letter from McAnelly to Kaiser confirmed a meeting on Oct. 5 in whichPCS was blamed for the blast because the CT wiring was improperly installed by a PCS contractor. McAnelly responded that the installation,rather, was done by Kaiser employees.

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