OSHA officers on site, investigating Noranda explosion

Published: Aug. 4, 2015 at 4:46 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 5, 2015 at 9:58 PM CDT
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(Source: Blake Kennard)
(Source: Blake Kennard)
Taken about one minute after the explosion from about four to five miles away. (Source: Lynn...
Taken about one minute after the explosion from about four to five miles away. (Source: Lynn Bock)
(Source: Jeff Hanna)
(Source: Jeff Hanna)
(Source: Samantha Wise Heaton/Facebook)
(Source: Samantha Wise Heaton/Facebook)

NEW MADRID, MO (KFVS) - Two OSHA officers were on site on Wednesay after a molten metal explosion at Noranda Aluminum in New Madrid on Tuesday, Aug. 4.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration's St. Louis Office has opened an investigation into two reported explosions at Noranda.

The explosions happened around 12:30 p.m. at the cast house in Noranda's plant.

According to a spokeswoman for OSHA, the officers were looking at the damage and interviewing workers. They will determine if Noranda violated any safety regulations designed to protect those workers from getting hurt.

They have six months to decide if Noranda should be cited, or have to pay any penalties.

A spokesperson said there was at least 400 people on site and about 20 people inside of the cast house when the explosion happened.

According to OSHA, preliminary information indicates that 33 employees were injured at the facility. According to OSHA, one was treated for smoke inhalation, 32 for eye irritation and some for ringing of the ears.

New Madrid County Sheriff Terry Stevens said there have been no fatalities.

According to Mark Christian, communications director at Noranda, injuries were limited to non-critical abrasions, dust irritation or smoke inhalation.

All those injured have been released from medical care with many returning to work.

Mike Downen works at the nearby power plant. He was in his office trailer when he felt what he first thought was an earthquake.

"I thought I was about to die," Downen said.

Downen grabbed his phone and went outside to see a large plume of smoke billowing into the sky.

He said the sound of the explosion was so loud his ears still hurt hours later.

The blast was picked up by the Center for Earthquake Research and Information helicorder in Marston that's used to measure the earthquakes.

Preliminary cause, areas affected at the plant

A spokesman with the Missouri Division of Fire Safety said all indications point to the actual cause of the blasts to be accidental.

According to OSHA, the preliminary cause of the explosion appears to be the result of molten aluminum contacting the water. They said much of the building appears to be demolished at the site where the company manufactures aluminum products.

"OSHA is on scene and will conduct a thorough investigation at Noranda Aluminum facility to see if any violations of safety procedures contributed to this tragic incident," said David Keim, OSHA's assistant director in St. Louis.

According to the VP of communications for Noranda, John Parker, only some of the products produced at the New Madrid facility were in the area affected by Tuesday's incident. He said only the billet cast house was affected, and those production activities have been suspended.

Parker said production activities in the remainder of the plant were not affected, and are continuing. These include: the production of aluminum in the smelting operations (producing aluminum) and the production of redraw rod in the plant's two rod mills. He said a third rod mill, which is under construction, was also not affected.

Past incidents

OSHA opened an investigation at the facility on June 30 after the company reported that a worker suffered second and third degree burns in an incident at the facility. Companies are required to report the hospitalization of any worker to OSHA within 24 hours. That investigation is ongoing.

OSHA said at the same time, they received an anonymous complaint about unsafe conditions.

According to OSHA, Noranda was previously cited in 2010 and 2012 as a result of three separate inspections that involved machine and equipment safety, but did not involve any workers getting hurt.

You can click here for more information on the OSHA investigative process.

Noranda experienced an explosion in 2014 as well. A transformer exploded at the plant on Aug. 14, 2014.

A Noranda employee says he survived falling into molten aluminum at the plant in May 2014. Chris Scherer said he fell in to the metal and spent 11 weeks in a Saint Louis hospital and rehabilitation facility.

What is Noranda?

The plant at New Madrid does a lot of aluminum smelting. It's a process where aluminum is extracted from alumina.

It takes a lot of electricity to do that. Noranda is Missouri's largest electricity user.

According to the company's website, the plant produces about 263 metric tons of primary aluminum each year. The facility also converts molten aluminum into other products like rods.

Mobile users: click here to view a slideshow of the explosion.

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