Kaiser legal appeal begins

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 5, 2000

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / April 5, 2000

NEW ORLEANS – The legal battles between Kaiser Aluminum of Gramercy and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in the fallout of the July 5, 1999 explosion moved to federal court yesterday.

Oral arguments were set to begin Tuesday at 9 a.m. before a three-judgepanel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to Tony Oppegard of MSHA.

Issues at question include MSHA’s jurisdiction over the investigation of the explosion. Kaiser was stung by 23 citations and $533,000 in fines as a resultof MSHA’s probe into the explosion’s cause and what the agency called Kaiser’s attempts to conceal or destroy potential evidence.

Kaiser spokesman Scott Lamb said last week the company was still taking depositions as part of its appeal of the citations and the fines before the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. No hearing date has beenset.

Also at issue is MSHA’s right of access to particular documents which Kaiser contends were privileged information. These documents, developed by theOver Pressure Protection Committee, were generated at the direction of attorneys, which brings it under attorney-client privilege, according to Lamb.

Kaiser eventually turned over the documents to the agency but under protest.

“We have faith in the judicial process,” Lamb said.

Lamb added the National Association of Manufacturers filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting Kaiser’s position, and he added the outcome would have “far-reaching effects” on manufacturing across the country.

Kaiser has also come under scrutiny by the Wall Street Journal which published a story March 22 that said MSHA had launched a criminal investigation into the explosion.

Oppegard said, on the other hand, the investigation conducted was one which would determine if a criminal investigation was warranted.

Kaiser also commented in response that neither the U.S. Department ofJustice nor MSHA notified the company of any criminal investigation under way.

Meanwhile, labor dispute talks between Kaiser and the United Steelworkers of America continue for two days this week. Earlier talks recessed inMinneapolis without significant breakthrough.

The USWA began its strike on Sept. 30, 1998, in a dispute over unfair laborpractices and a substandard contract offer. On Jan. 14, 1999, the companyresponded to a return-to-work offer by locking out the 2,900 strikers at five plants.

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