"Steelworkers Hail $533,000 Federal Penalty Against Kaiser Aluminum for July Explosion"

“The United Steelworkers of America labor union has hailed the $533,000 penalty assessed by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration against Kaiser Aluminum.The penalty stems from the July 5, 1999, explosion at the company’s Gramercy, Louisiana alumina refinery that injured 26 workers, destroyed a portion of the plant, and reportedly showered the surrounding community with caustic chemicals and broken glass. Although this penalty is small compared to the cost of rebuilding the lives shattered by Kaiser’s negligence, it is one of the highest ever assessed by MSHA, said David Foster, director of USWA District 11 and the union’s chief negotiator with Kaiser. It sends a clear message that this kind of corporate irresponsibility and arrogance will not be tolerated.USWA members in Tacoma have often been critical of Kaiser for the potential for replacement workers or scabs to be injured through similar incidents here due to what they deem to be inadequate training for a dangerous job.The monetary penalty was assessed for thirteen serious violations of MSHA’s mandatory safety standards and eight instances of impeding the agency’s investigation of the explosion. The violations included inoperative pressure relief systems, blocked pressure relief piping, routine operation of pressure vessels beyond their capacity, inadequate safety training, and lack of proper protective equipment. MSHA has said these violations constituted more than ordinary negligence. Harry Tuggle, a mine safety and health specialist with the USWA, noted that the penalties were the highest allowed by law for seven of the twenty-one violations.We’re still reviewing the details, Tuggle said, but it appears the total could have been even higher. Kaiser has the right to appeal the penalty, but if the company does that, we will be in court arguing that the penalty should be increased. Kaiser noted the penalties totaled approximately half of the maximum that could have been imposed, but said it found them nonetheless inappropriate. The company said it was confident the proposed penalty will be rejected by the courts.USWA members struck Kaiser Aluminum on September 30, 1998, and offered to return to work on January 13, 1999. On January 14, 1999, the company locked out over 2,900 USWA members at its plants in Gramercy, Louisiana, Newark, Ohio, and Tacoma and Spokane, Washington. Stanley Folse, safety and health chair for USWA Local Union 5702, which represents the locked-out workers at Gramercy, called on the company to admit its past mistakes, bargain in good faith with the union, and return its experienced workforce to the job under a fair contract.Kaiser first tried to stop the investigation, Folse said. That didn’t work, so now they’re desperately trying to avoid responsibility. But what they should be doing is working with us to make this plant and all their plants safe.Kaiser said it has already challenged the citations, which form the basis for the penalty, and now will challenge the penalty as well, consolidating the cases before Administrative Law Judge Melick of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.”