OT?: Kaiser blamed for plant blast

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This is important because it demonstrates the lack of concern for safety by large corporate entities which may relate to dilligence on y2k issues.

Kaiser blamed for plant blast


River parishes bureau

The U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration on Monday placed the blame for the July 5 explosion at Kaiser Aluminum Corp.'s Gramercy plant squarely on the shoulders of the plant's management.

"Kaiser's apparent failure to follow well-known safety rules and practices resulted in serious injury to workers at the Gramercy plant," Assistant Secretary of Labor J. Davitt McAteer said.

"We are hopeful that these actions will be immediately addressed by Kaiser management so that we may avoid such tragic accidents in the future," McAteer said.

"Management's failure to identify hazardous conditions and unsafe practices and to initiate actions to correct these conditions and practices contributed to the explosion," MSHA said in the report.

In response, a Kaiser vice president, Scott Lamb, said, "Most of the data cited by MSHA is based on information we have provided to them and that they have subsequently misinterpreted."

Kaiser "has abundant technical detail that rebuts MSHA's conclusions," Lamb said.

In January, MSHA issued 21 citations to Kaiser for failure to file federal safety regulations.

In a report last month, the agency also cited Kaiser seven times for impeding the investigation into the cause of the blast. Kaiser could be fined up to $55,000 per violation cited.

MSHA issued a 28-page report Monday outlining the findings of its investigation into the blast that injured 29 workers, damaged homes and cars in the area and brought the operation of the Kaiser plant to a standstill. The report said the explosion was caused by excessive pressure built up in several large tanks.

An electrical power failure approximately 30 minutes before the explosion caused the plant's process machinery to stop and pumps could not move the "extremely hot liquid called slurry through the tanks in the process," MSHA said.

This caused pressure to build up in the tanks while the plant's gas-fired boilers continued to deliver high-pressure steam to vessels, increasing the pressure, MSHA said.

"The tanks then exploded with great force, resulting in the near total destruction of four tanks and the release of hot caustic material across the plant and into the surrounding community," the report said.

It said relief valves to the tanks didn't prevent the buildup of pressure because they had been "impermissibly blocked."

MSHA, the federal agency which oversees the safety in mines and in plants such as Kaiser, reported the following conclusions:

 Evidence shows Kaiser knew of and condoned the practice of allowing the "digestion" process to operate even though pressure in one or more of the vessels exceeded the operating maximum.  Kaiser not only didn't follow the industry standard which requires functional pressure relief safety systems, it knew of and condoned the practice of disabling these safety systems.  Kaiser failed to conduct required workplace examinations to identify conditions and practices that posed hazards to employees and did not correct hazardous conditions that were evident.  Kaiser failed to provide adequate safety and health training for employees, and this "contributed significantly" to the blast.  Kaiser did not provide adequate protective clothing for employees.

For its part, Kaiser said MSHA conducted "repeated safety inspections of the plant" before the explosion "which validated the training and operating procedures" used at the Gramercy plant.

"In fact," Lamb said, "MSHA had been on site for an inspection for eight days prior to the explosion and had spent more than 40 days inspecting the plant since January 1999."

Kaiser said MSHA repeatedly reviewed and approved the training plan and plant records as recently as a week before the explosion and employees were wearing MSHA-approved protective clothing at the time of the blast. Lamb said "outside, independent forensic engineers" concluded conditions of the pressure relief systems did not cause the explosion.

Kaiser said its own investigation found the cause of the explosion was a failure in the plant's power distribution system "that eliminated power to critical pumps, heat exchanges and slurry flow, while at the same time steam continued to flow into the vessels at a very high rate, ultimately exceeding the design limit of the vessels."

Lamb said Kaiser will challenge MSHA's conclusions and the federal report has no bearing on the company plans to rebuild the Gramercy plant.

The United Steelworkers of America has been on strike against Kaiser since Sept. 30, 1998. The company locked the union members out in January.

However, the company and union have resumed negotiations and a negotiating session is scheduled later this month.



-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), February 08, 2000

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