Kaiser blamed for July 5 blast

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 9, 2000

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / February 9, 2000

GRAMERCY – Kaiser Aluminum expressed its surprise and disappointment Monday to a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration report that laysblame for the July 5, 1999 explosion at the plant on Kaiser management.

Kaiser also said it will appeal the findings of the MSHA report before the agency’s administrative law judge.

Kaiser, in a written statement, claims it cooperated fully with the investigation, and it questioned the need for the report to be released on a Saturday when Kaiser management was away from the plant and unable to respond to the media in a timely fashion.

Kaiser also pointed out that MSHA had been on-site for eight days conducting inspections at the time of the explosion.

“Kaiser is particularly disappointed in the MSHA report and the citations because most of the data cited by MSHA is based on information we have provided to them and that they have subsequently misinterpreted,” the statement continued.

MSHA cited excessive pressure in the slurry tanks, inadequately trained and equipped personnel and failure to correct unsafe working conditions as contributing factors leading to the explosion which injured 29 people, leaving one of them legally blind and another with third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body.

Additionally, according to MSHA’s report, Kaiser didn’t notify the agency of the explosion, which only learned of it from the striking union workers.

According to MSHA’s re-creation of the accident, contained in its final report, an electrical fault in Switch House 2 at 4:43 a.m. led to a pressurebuildup in the slurry tanks and lines.

When the power failed, the reports says, digestion operators Albert Jones, Terrence Hayes and Wayne Robins were about to end their shift. The powerfailed and they returned to the digestion control room, where operator David Steele was trying to locate supervisor Walter Hansley.

Hansley and Steele worked to depressurize the lines and Hansley told Jones, Hayes and Robins to close the vent valves to prevent the caustic slurry from spraying the area.

The explosion hit just after 5:15 a.m.Hayes’ goggles were blown off and caustic hit his eyes, blinding him. Joneswas knocked down and sprayed with the slurry, receiving third-degree burns to his head, neck, left forearm and left calf. Robins’ goggles were blown offand he received third-degree burns to the face, legs and groin.

About the same time supervisor Gary Guy and leadman Todd Landry were in Switch House 1, trying to correct the electrical fault. They were joined byKen Hymel Jr., Guy’s replacement on shift.Hymel received scrapes as he was blown out of the building by the explosion.

Landry was blown out of the building and received third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body.

Guy was blown out of the building and received third-degree burns to over 50 percent of his body and also lost use of his right hand.

The force of the explosion released 400,000 pounds of sodium hydroxide into the air, with residue settling in Gramercy and Lutcher as far as three miles away. The concussion of the blast also blew out windows and damaged somehomes.

MSHA says in the report it first learned of the explosion at 6:15 a.m. by atelephone call from Stanley Folse, one of the striking steelworkers. Kaiserhad still not notified MSHA as of 7:30 a.m., when MSHA inspector JamesBussell arrived.

In early January, MSHA issued Kaiser 21 citations for various violations of federal mine safety regulations as a result of its investigation. The plant isalso involved in a labor dispute since the United Steelworkers of America local struck on Sept. 30, 1998. Kaiser has been in operation in Gramercy since 1958 and has 442 employees.

On June 21, 1999, MSHA began its routine inspections, which were still in progress at the time of the explosion on July 5.

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