Explosion Injures 24 Workers, Closes Plant

It's little surprise that 18- to 34-year-olds are at the heart of a nationwide increase in illegal drug use, and the manufacturing industry traditionally draws heavily from this pool of job seekers.

Production is not expected to resume for several months at Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp.'s Gramercy, La., aluminum refinery after a July 5 explosion in the digester area of the plant injured 24 workers. On July 8, Louisiana's governor declared a state of emergency in St. James Parish, where local authorities are dealing with about 2,000 complaints from residents concerning medical problems and property damage.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, state police and company investigators are looking into what caused the explosion, which damaged as many as 10 flash tanks where caustic aluminum solution is cooled from 300-degree temperatures needed to "digest" it from bauxite and sodium hydroxide. The blast left the plant inoperable, Kaiser officials said.

Of the injured, six remained hospitalized July 8, with one in critical condition with burn-related injuries. At least 100 area residents, complaining of nausea and breathing problems, were treated at area hospitals after the explosion, which spewed red chemical on houses and cars as far away as a mile.

"Obviously, this is a very sad and unfortunate event," said Ray Milchovich, president and chief operating officer of Kaiser, which has headquarters in Oakland, Calif., and is the nation's fifth-largest aluminum company. "We are taking steps to identify the cause and would hope to learn how to prevent such an accident from ever occurring again."

The plant is one of five in the United States where 3,100 United Steelworkers went on strike Sept. 30, 1998. Kaiser has kept the plants running with management and temporary workers. There was no evidence to indicate that the labor dispute played a part in the explosion, company spokesman Scott Lamb said.

Equipment in the area of the explosion was being operated by employees with extensive experience, Lamb said. Two of the injured were contract workers, and the other four three supervisors with 25 years of experience in that part of the plant and a retired steelworker hired several months ago were Kaiser employees.

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