Kaiser Aluminum Faces $533,000 Penalty

The company considers the amount to be inappropriate and will challenge MSHA's proposed fines.

Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. has known for several weeks that it has been cited for more than 20 violations of federal mine safety regulations stemming from the July 5 explosion that injured 29 workers at its Gramercy, La., plant.

The company, though, did not find out until this week that the cost of those 23 citations levied by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) totals $533,000.

"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.

Kaiser noted that the proposed MSHA penalty is about half of the statutory maximum. Nonetheless, the company considers the amount to be inappropriate and is confident the proposed penalty will be rejected by the courts. Only an assigned federal administrative law judge has the statutory authority to assess an actual penalty, and it will be based first on the validity or invalidity of the MSHA citations against Kaiser, and then on the degree of fault and seriousness, if any, found by the judge.

The company has already challenged the citations upon which the penalty is based and will challenge the penalty as well, consolidating the cases before Administrative Law Judge Melick of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. Depositions are scheduled to start this week, and the company is waiting for MSHA's response to written questions and document requests.

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 Wednesday.

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.

"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," McAteer said.

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.

For more information, read occupationalhazards.com's Jan. 11 news item "MSHA Issues 21 Citations Against Aluminum Plant" and the Feb. 9 story "Kaiser at Fault in Gramercy Explosion." The full report of MSHA's investigation into the Kaiser explosion is available from the agency's home page on the Internet at www.msha.gov/minefire/gramercy/gramercyhp.htm.

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