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Kaiser Aluminum-Tacoma

The aluminum smelter at the Port of Tacoma is a now-defunct facility once owned by Kaiser Aluminum. The reduction facility once worked in conjunction with the aluminum reduction plant at Mead, Washington, though was sold in 2002. The property, plant and equipment brought net cash proceeds of $12.1 million.

The Former Facilities

The Tacoma reduction plant operated three potlines and was capable of producing 73,000 tons of aluminum per year. Tacoma produced only two products - 1,000-pound sows and high-grade coiled redraw rod. The latter was used in high-tension electrical wire, insulated cable and cable TV wiring. While Kaiser aluminum's other facilities employed pre-bake technology, Tacoma used horizontal-stud Soderberg technology.

The History of Kaiser

Kaiser Aluminum is headquartered in Foothill Ranch, California, and is a major global producer of aluminum and finished aluminum products. The company was founded in 1946 by Henry J. Kaiser, a wealthy American industrialist who began the business by leasing and purchasing three aluminum production facilities in Washington State that had formerly been owned and operated by the US government.

The facilities included the reduction plant at the Port of Tacoma, the sister plant at Mead (which is still in operation) and the aluminum rolling mill at Trentwood, Washington, near Spokane.

Current Facilities

After a modest restructuring, which included the sale of the Port of Tacoma plant, Kaiser continues to maintain 11 fabrication facilities. Today there are 10 in the United States and one in Canada.

Environmental Record

Kaiser has a poor environmental record and continues to engage with the US Environmental Protection Agency over responsibility and cleanup costs at its various facilities. At the Mead plant, for instance, pot linings were disposed of on the property, leaching cyanide, fluoride and other toxic chemicals into the groundwater. All of Kaiser's facilities are in some stage of cleanup today.

Kaiser Aluminum's Tacoma Smelter and Asbestos

Whenever extreme heat or combustion was a concern, asbestos was the insulating material of choice for much of the last century. Therefore, it was not uncommon for foundries such as Kaiser Aluminum's Tacoma smelter to be built with materials that contained asbestos. Resistance to electricity is one of the other properties of various types of asbestos. Because of this, asbestos was used throughout most aluminum foundries, since creating aluminum not only requires extremely high temperatures but also utilizes large amounts of electricity. Safety clothing, coating materials and bench tops were also made with ACM (asbestos-containing material) because of its resistance to chemicals. Asbestos, however, carried a major downside that was either not known or sometimes deliberately ignored: debilitating and sometimes fatal medical conditions were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.

For the most part, chrysotile was the type of asbestos used. For a number of years, chrysotile was described by corporations as the "good asbestos", even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Although it was banned in building materials in the 1970s, chrysotile, which was frequently mixed with brown or blue asbestos and used to create asbestos transite, appeared for decades in aluminum foundries across the United States.

Asbestos transite could be laminated and sprayed onto ductwork and pipes just as cement could. As long as asbestos transite remained solid, this form of asbestos posed almost no hazard. Microscopic particles of asbestos are released into the atmosphere, however, as transite with asbestos containing material (ACM) ages and becomes prone to becoming powdery. That is, such asbestos is friable, or able to be crushed by hand pressure alone.

Why Friable Asbestos Is Bad

When friable, asbestos fibers are readily dispersed in the air. Diseases such as asbestosis and cancer can result from breathing asbestos. Mesothelioma, an unusual but frequently lethal cancer affecting the mesothelium (the lining between the lungs and the chest cavity), has been shown to be linked with inhaling asbestos. If the airborne particles land on food or in beverages and are then swallowed, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma can occur, though they are rarer than pleural mesothelioma.

Mounting pressure from citizen groups, the medical community and the press led to regulations controlling how to use asbestos. However, when facilities such as Kaiser Aluminum's Tacoma smelter were first online, asbestos was more common. And in way too many instances workers used asbestos-containing materials when they did not have the protection of respirators or other protective gear.

The Lurking Hazard of Asbestos

As opposed to most workplace injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, asbestos-related diseases may take many, many years to develop. It can also be challenging to identify asbestos-related disorders because their symptoms resemble the symptoms of other disorders. So, it is very important for those that worked at or spent much time near smelters like Kaiser Aluminum's Tacoma smelter to inform their doctors about the possibility of exposure to asbestos. New methods for treating asbestos cancerh are being developed, and early detection gives the patient and his or her doctor the best chance of overcoming the once deathly form of cancer.



Kaiser Aluminum - History of Kaiser Aluminum

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

US Environmental Protection Agency - Kaiser Aluminum Meade Works

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