Kaiser Aluminum is one of the major producers of aluminum in the United States. The company is located in Foothill Ranch, California. The company first began in 1946 and was started by Henry J. Kaiser. As of today, Kaiser owns eleven different fabricating plants that have the ability to produce 500 million pounds of aluminum each year. The company also employs over 2,000 people. Originally, Kaiser produced its own metal, mining bauxite to be refined into workable aluminum. However, as time progressed, they sold off the mines and refineries to focus on the manufacture of aluminum products for the aerospace, engineering, and automotive industries.
Kaiser Aluminum has instigated several environmental and health controversies. At its Mead Works facility in Washington, workers did not properly dispose of the carbon linings of pots used to smelt aluminum, but rather dumped them in one section of the property. Because these pot linings become contaminated in the course of regular use with materials that form cyanide, if they are left lying around, they can contaminate wells and aquifers. In 1978, the EPA did, in fact, find cyanide and fluoride in the local water system. Kaiser began storing their used pot linings in a special facility, but in 1990 began shipping them to a hazardous waste landfill.
Pot linings were not the only dangerous materials at Kaiser Aluminum facilities. Because the use of asbestos was common in work sites and factories in the 20th century, Kaiser Aluminum has been known to have used asbestos-containing material on its property. Kaiser and other metal works used asbestos because it has a very high resistance toward heat as well as electricity. The use of asbestos protected the workers and the property; however, the serious illnesses that have been contracted due to coming in contact with the asbestos were not worth using the material. At this time when asbestos was used, its health consequences were not widely known.
Kaiser, like other aluminum processing companies, has discontinued the use of asbestos in its factories, but it is too late for some of the employees who worked there in previous decades. Mesothelioma, a rare and fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs, takes between 20 and 50 years after exposure to develop, so it is only now that the full consequences of asbestos use are beginning to show. Due to a weakened aluminum market and increasingly costly asbestos litigation, Kaiser Aluminum declared bankruptcy in February of 2002, but it was able to rebound and is still in business today.