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MSHA News Release No. 2000-0315
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: Rodney Brown
Phone: (703) 235-1452

Released Wednesday, March 15, 2000

MSHA Levies Half Million Dollar Penalty Against Kaiser Aluminum for Plant Explosion

     The U. S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has levied fines totalling $533,000 against Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. for 23 violations of federal regulations stemming from the July 5, 1999, explosion that injured 29 workers at its Gramercy, La., plant.

     "This accident points to the importance of management and employees working together to ensure that relief systems are in good working condition," said Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

     In the MSHA investigative report on the Kaiser explosion issued last month, the agency concluded that excessive pressure in several large tanks caused the powerful blast that rocked the plant and the surrounding community. In the report, MSHA said management's failure to identify and correct hazardous conditions and unsafe practices directly contributed to the early morning explosion. The agency had announced in early January that Kaiser had been cited for 21 violations of federal mine safety regulations relating to the accident. Those citations, along with two others issued afterward, were assessed civil penalties today.

     Seven violations cited by MSHA investigators were determined to have directly contributed to the cause of the blast and were assessed the maximum penalty of $55,000 each. MSHA determined that these violations constituted more than ordinary negligence and were an unwarrantable failure on the part of Kaiser management to comply with mandatory safety standards. These seven citations were written for the following violations:

   –The pressure relief system at the Kaiser plant, installed to relieve excessive pressure in flash tanks 7, 8, and 9, was inoperative. Excessive pressure then built up and eventually caused one or more of these tanks to explode.

   –The pressure relief system, installed to relieve pressure in flash tank 6, was inoperative. Excessive pressure then built up and eventually caused this tank to explode.

   –Sections of the pressure relief piping, designed to vent excessive pressures for the digestion flash tanks, were partially blocked, and, in at least one case, blocked with rock-hard scale. This material had accumulated inside several pipes over an extended period. Excessive pressure then built up in several flash tanks eventually causing one or more to explode.

   –The 36-inch diameter discharge pipe connecting the blow-off tank to the relief tank contained a build-up of scale in one section which significantly reduced the inside pipe diameter. This scale build-up restricted the flow of slurry from the flash tanks after the power failure. Excessive pressure then built up in the digestion pressure tanks and eventually caused one or more of these tanks to explode.

   –Kaiser management routinely allowed the digestion process to run while pressure in one or more pressure vessels exceeded the design capacity intended by the manufacturer.

   –Kaiser management failed to examine for workplace hazards and subsequently failed to take appropriate actions to correct conditions that posed hazards to workers. Management operated flash tank No. 7 at pressures exceeding its design capacity and failed to properly maintain the pressure relief safety systems for pressure vessels in the digestion area. Evidence shows management knew or should have known of these hazards and failed to take prompt corrective actions.

   –One digestion control room operator had not been adequately trained in safe work tasks. The employee had no training or knowledge of procedures that should be implemented relative to a power failure.

     "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," said McAteer.

     In addition, MSHA assessed Kaiser $100,000 in fines for multiple instances of interfering with the progress of the investigation. Investigators issued one of those citations when Kaiser entered a restricted area and removed, deleted, or modified electronically stored data without MSHA's permission or knowledge. That violation drew a $25,000 civil penalty.

     The remaining citations were issued for violations that did not directly contribute to the explosion and were assessed lower penalties of less than $10,000 each. Kaiser may appeal the proposed civil penalties to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent agency.

     In assessing civil penalties, MSHA is required to consider several factors, including the size of the operation, the degree of negligence involved, the gravity of the violation, and the company's good faith in correcting the cited violations.

     The full report of MSHA's investigation into the Kaiser explosion is available from the agency's homepage on the Internet at http://www.msha.gov/minefire/gramercy/gramercyhp.htm