Power Interruption Led to Explosion, Kaiser Says

The July 5 explosion that injured 21 workers at a Louisiana alumina refinery was caused by a power distribution interruption, the company said Aug. 13.

The power interruption in an onsite power house caused process flow pumps to cease operating at Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp.s Gramercy facility. The situation could not be remedied before pressure built up in the last sealed vessel, or blow-off tank, in the plants digestion area, according to the company.

The explosion, which left the plant inoperable, resulted in mostly burn-related injuries to the 21 workers. The digestion area is where caustic aluminum solution is cooled from 300-degree temperatures needed to digest it from bauxite and sodium hydroxide. Two of six workers taken to hospitals have yet to return home.

First and foremost, we are pleased that the health of our injured employees is improving, said George T. Haymaker Jr., Kaisers chairman and chief executive officer. This has been a difficult experience, and we are taking steps to prevent such an incident from ever occurring again in a Kaiser facility.

The company has dramatically heightened its level of attention to crisis and emergency plans and is reviewing various safety-oriented procedures at its plants, spokesman Scott Lamb said.

The Gramercy facility has ranked among Kaisers safest plants, Haymaker said, adding that at the time of the explosion, the equipment in the digestion area was being operated by employees with extensive experience. Other conditions present at the time of the explosion, including what caused the power disruption, continue to be investigated by Kaiser.

Meanwhile, the company is looking into rebuilding the plant, assuming we are able to reach acceptable agreement with various stakeholders on matters related to the plants competitive position, Haymaker said. Based on what we currently know, we continue to believe that the financial impact of this incident will be largely offset by insurance coverage.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) also is investigating and has planned a public hearing for 9 a.m. Sept. 8 at Convent, La. The hearing, to be in the St. James Parish Courthouse, is expected to last two to three weeks. MSHA investigators will interview workers familiar with plant operations and others with knowledge of events surrounding the explosion. While all questioning will be by agency investigators, the company, its workers or others can submit written questions, suggest areas of inquiries or recommend witnesses.

Early reports following the explosion, which spewed a red chemical substance on houses and cars as far away as a mile, indicated that at least 100 residents were treated at local hospitals after they complained of nausea and breathing problems. Still, on Aug. 13, Kaisers Haymaker indicated the explosion did not harm nearby residents. We are pleased to say that our health consultants have advised us that the incident posed no health threat to the surrounding community, he said.

The red chemical noticed by residents, Lamb said, was bauxite dust shaken loose from surrounding equipment during the explosion. The facility refines the bauxite, imported from Jamaica, into alumina, which is a feed stock for primary aluminum. Long-term exposure to bauxite fumes, but not dust, can lead to bauxite pneumoconiosis, sometimes called Shavers disease or bauxite workers disease. The rapidly progressing condition results in exceedingly severe pulmonary emphysema. Symptoms include coughing, fatigue and labored breathing.

On July 8, the governor declared a state of emergency in St. James Parish, where local authorities dealt with about 2,000 complaints from residents concerning medical problems and property damage.

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