July 6, 1999

Kaiser plant explosions injure 19
Louisiana facility closed indefinitely after caustic chemical spreads

>From staff and wire reports -

GRAMERCY, La. _ A series of explosions heard for 10 miles shook a Kaiser
Aluminum plant in Louisiana on Monday, spraying a caustic chemical over the

At least 19 workers were injured in the blast at the Kaiser plant being run
by supervisors and replacement workers, said Gramercy Police Chief Mike

More than 2,900 United Steelworkers have been locked out of five Kaiser
Aluminum plants, including two in Spokane, since Jan. 14. The lockout
followed a strike that began Sept. 30.

Relations between striking Steelworkers and replacement workers have been
tense at times, but on Monday, a Spokane union leader expressed only

"Right now, we just want to know what happened in there. I don't want to
take this opportunity to beat up on anybody," said Dan Russel, local union
president for the Mead aluminum smelter.

"We are always concerned about injured people, whether they are
Steelworkers or not," Russel said. "Sometimes in anger we might say we
don't care, but we really do."

Kaiser spokeswoman Susan Ashe said the Gramercy plant has been shut down

The plant produced 1 million metric tons of alumina annually, one-third of
the company's total production. Kaiser's Mead smelter uses alumina -- a
fine, white powder -- to make aluminum.

Since the Mead smelter gets its alumina from Australia, the plant's
production shouldn't be affected by the Gramercy closure, Ashe said.

Five law enforcement agencies are currently investigating the cause of the
explosion, with nothing determined as of late Monday, Kahl said.

The explosions at about 5:15 a.m. destroyed the plant's digestion area and
power house. Electricity is generated there and bauxite, a reddish and
clay-like aluminum ore, is mixed with a liquid form of sodium hydroxide, a
caustic chemical.

The blasts rocked Gramercy and the surrounding area, breaking windows
several miles away and knocking dishes off shelves.

"I thought it was a jet airplane explosion," said Leon Millet, who lives
about two miles away.

"It sounded like 10 shotguns fired all at once," said Cline Cockburn, who
was taking a bath when the explosions shook his house about 600 yards from
the plant.

The blasts sent a cloud of the bauxite-sodium hydroxide mixture into the
air, and state police Lt. Mike Edmonson said some of it landed in
residential yards within a mile of the plant.

Authorities told residents to stay indoors and close their windows. They
also warned people not to touch the material, which can burn skin.

Residents complaining of nausea and respiratory problems swamped the
emergency room at St. James Parish Hospital. All were treated and released.

Everyone was accounted for at the plant 40 miles west of New Orleans.
Nineteen workers were treated, with four taken to burn units. Another
worker suffered eye injuries and one underwent surgery for cuts. The most
serious injuries were severe chemical burns, Kahl said.

Staff writers Tracy Ellig and Robin Rivers contributed to this report.

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