Regulators looking into Noranda safety violations

Fines at Louisiana refinery topped $800,000 in 2010-11

Federal safety regulators have told aluminum manufacturer Noranda they think the company has been violating mandatory health or safety standards at an alumina refinery in Louisiana.

Noranda executives late last month received word from Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators about the potential pattern of violations. The federal agency’s concerns stem in part from a review of the compliance, accident and employment records at Noranda’s refinery in Gramercy, west of New Orleans.

The complex, which is home to about 450 employees, was on the receiving end of more than $800,000 in penalties in 2010 and 2011 but has been cited for only $60,000 of violations this year. As of Sept. 30, five legal actions related to Gramercy were pending.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, officials at Franklin-based Noranda say they are committed to improving their compliance with safety standards — such improvements are a “key metric” of U.S. employees’ bonus calculations — and plan to submit a plan to fix the shortcomings cited by MSHA officials.

“We intend to continue to work cooperatively with MSHA to improve our future inspection results and to demonstrate the commitment we and our employees share to continual improvement in our safety program and safety performance,” Noranda execs said in their filing this week.

If regulators aren’t appeased by Noranda’s actions and plans, officials say any conditions they impose could have “a significant impact” on Gramercy, which feeds refined alumina to the company’s massive plant in Southeast Missouri as well as third parties.

Shares of Noranda (Ticker: NOR) were changing hands around $6.20 on Tuesday afternoon, up more than 2 percent on the day. Year to date, they’ve fallen more than 20 percent.