Alcoa, Inc., potline idled after lightning strikes substation

By Lance Coleman
Blount Today

Lightning struck a substation and idled the potline at the Alcoa, Inc., South Plant early Saturday evening, and managers are expecting the line could be down for several months.

Brickey Beasley, United Steel Workers Local 309 president, said the jobs of between 150 to 200 employees were affected, but all are still reporting to work and are on the job.

According to Melissa Copelan, director of community affairs with Alcoa, Inc., the electrical storms that hit the Southeast this past weekend resulted in a power outage at the company’s Tennessee Operations aluminum smelter. This is the first time the potline has been shut down unexpectedly, Copelan said.

According to the company, a power substation serving the smelting operations was directly hit by a lightning strike, resulting in a complete power outage at both the North and South plants. "It happened at 6:52 p.m. on Saturday," Copelan said.

While the North Plant was restored quickly, the potline at the South Plant remains down at this time. There were no injuries.
Plant employees were able to restore full power to the plant, but one of the two potlines at the plant, representing about 107,000 metric tons per year, was not able to be re-started and is currently not operating. It is expected that that potline may take several months to restart.

The company would not comment on the impact this will have on staffing at the plant.

A full restart plan for the potline and financial impact is being developed along with an evaluation of impacts on the adjacent can sheet rolling mill, which utilizes aluminum from the company’s smelter, according to a press release.

"What we’re concentrating on now is fully assessing the situation we have before us and planning a path forward," Copelan said. "It’s definitely not a situation with a quick fix."

Copelan said the company is trying to determine a time line for the repairs and financial impact of the damage. "We’re trying to do whatever we need to do to restart," she said. "We’re working hard to get that information together."

Beasley said he was in the South Plant for about four hours on Sunday and spoke with managers. "They intend to bring the pots up as soon as they can but that’s kind of a lengthy process once you shut down," Beasley said. "You’ve got to cool them down, dig them up. It’s a very labor intensive job. It’s going to take a while to get them back."

Copelan said she hadn’t heard any estimate on the number of workers affected and hadn’t communicated anything regarding the number of employees affected by the idled potline.

Beasley said none of the workers had been told to stay home. "Probably about 150 to 200 people were affected," he said.
Beasley said that in a situation like this there usually are some carbon burn-off issues on line and that’s what workers were cleaning up. "Those pots have to stay about 1,500 degrees to 2,000 degrees (Fahrenheit), and they start cooling off quickly," he said.

"The anodes and cathodes are the electrical components that make aluminum. The anodes are what can burn off," he said. "They’re not designed to, but when you put low and high power currents to them, you get some burn-off issues. That’s what they’re dealing with right now."

Alcoa Fire Department Lt. Tom Clark said one engine, three firefighters and two chief officers arrived on the scene. The personnel didn’t have to put out flames, but simply set up a perimeter to secure the area, he said.

"What we responded to was explosions in their power substation yard. It was arcing power lines," he said. "We set up a
perimeter to keep people away from the power line."

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