Kaiser faces big fine for violations

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 19, 2000

L’Observateur / March 19, 2000

GRAMERCY – Kaiser Aluminum was fined $533,000 this week for 23 violations of federal regulations before and after the July 5, 1999 explosion that injured 29 workers.

David McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, commented, “This accident points to the appointment of management and employees working together to ensure that relief systems are in good working condition.”Work conditions, though, were but one area on which Kaiser was cited, the others including alleged interference with the progress of the investigation.

This included an instance where Kaiser management entered a restricted area and removed, deleted or modified computer data without permission.

That violation alone drew a $25,000 penalty from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Kaiser noted that the penalty is about half the maximum, but that, “it is nonetheless, inappropriate.”Kaiser officials say they are confident the proposed penalty will be rejected by the courts. Kaiser claims that only the assigned federal administrativelaw judge has the authority to assess an actual penalty.

Kaiser has already challenged the citations upon which the penalty is based, and the company said it will challenge the penalty as well, consolidating the two cases before Administrative Law Judge Melick of MSHA.

Kaiser states that depositions are ready to start next week and the company is waiting for MSHA’s response to written questions and document requests.

“The company looks forward to an opportunity to present its case before the administrative law judge,” said Scott Lamb, Kaiser spokesman.

David Foster, chief negotiator for the United Steelworkers of America in their ongoing labor dispute with Kaiser, commented: “Although this penalty is small compared to the cost of rebuilding the lives shattered by Kaiser’s negligence, it is one of the highest ever assessed by MSHA. It sends a clearmessage that this kind of corporate irresponsibility and arrogance will not be tolerated.”MSHA said seven violations for which Kaiser was fined directly contributed to the explosion and led to maximum fines of $55,000 each. These includedinoperative pressure relief systems, partially-blocked discharge pipes, exceeding design pressure in at least one vessel, an inadequately trained control room operator and failing to examine and correct workplace hazards.

McAteer added, “The overall lesson learned from this accident is the need to conduct emergency drills regularly as a means for keeping all fall-back systems operative.”Harry Tuggle, a safety specialist for MSHA, also commented, “Kaiser has the right to appeal the penalty, but if the company does that we will be in court arguing that the penalty should be increased.”Stanley Folse of USWA Local 5702 in Gramercy, added, “Kaiser first tried to stop the investigation. That didn’t work, so now they’re desperately trying toavoid responsibility. But what they should be doing is working with us to makethis plant and all their plants safe.”The USWA strike against Kaiser began Sept. 30, 1998. On Jan. 14, 1999,spurning a back-to-work offer, Kaiser locked out the striking employees. Theexplosion hit July 5, 1999, nearly seven months later.

Kaiser officials said labor negotiations with the USWA recessed on Wednesday as scheduled. According to Kaiser the talks were constructiveand both parties have agreed to resume negotiations March 23 in Minneapolis.

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