There will be financial fallout from the terrible miscalculations that resulted in five workers being killed in June at Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station. State and federal regulators should ensure those costs are borne by the company's shareholders, not its customers. Monetary considerations will not begin to offset the avoidable loss of five lives, but they will send a message that the company and not its ratepayers should be held accountable for its poor decisions.
A remarkable investigation by the Tampa Bay Times' Neil Bedi, Jonathan Capriel, Anastasia Dawson and Kathleen McGrory reveals just how dangerous it is to try to unclog a slag tank beneath a coal-fired boiler while the boiler is still on. A plug of hardened slag clogging a hole broke, and thousands of gallons of molten slag rushed down and covered the workers. Tampa Electric CEO Gordon Gillette acknowledged the procedure's risk and said it won't be repeated with a boiler running while investigations are continuing. That's a start, but it's not enough.
Performing this risky procedure amounted to corporate malpractice. Power plant experts and operators from across the country told the Times that working at the bottom of a slag tank with the boiler online is dangerous and "obviously unsafe.'' Managers at four plants with slag tanks said they don't allow it. Many factors such as high temperatures, extreme pressure and the potential for changing conditions within the running boiler can trigger a disaster.
In fact, TECO ignored its own history and previous reforms in allowing the practice. At least three workers were hospitalized after a 1997 accident at TECO's Gannon Power Station when a similar repair project with a boiler on went awry and slag gushed from an open door. Yet TECO abandoned rules it adopted after that accident and ignored its own safety manual, which appears to prohibit the practice. As Gillette acknowledged, even after a union grievance was filed about the practice the company convinced itself other plants still used the procedure "and we got ourselves comfortable with operating that way.''
TECO also got comfortable using contractors to do this kind of work. Four of the five killed were not TECO employees but worked for contractors: Christopher Irvin and Frank Lee Jones worked for Gaffin Industrial Services, a Riverview contractor specializing in industrial water-blasting. Antonio Navarrete and Amando J. Perez worked for BRACE Industrial Group. TECO senior plant operator Michael McCort also was killed. The investigations should examine whether the men working for other companies were properly trained and whether TECO relied on these contractors to save money and avoid more complaints from the union about safety concerns.
It's hard to imagine another motivation besides saving money for TECO resuming this practice of dealing with clogs while the boiler is on and accepting a degree of risk other electric plants reject. Shutting down the boiler to tackle the problem with a different approach would have cost TECO money. It also would have knocked out of service a unit during a hot month with high demand that could produce twice as much power for Tampa Electric as normal. Gillette points out that the Florida Public Service Commission allows utilities to recover the costs of firing up the boiler and buying replacement power by billing customers. But that process takes months, and there is no guarantee that even the utility-friendly PSC would approve the costs.
TECO had been flirting with disaster by keeping boilers on while workers removed blockages beneath them. Its luck ran out in June. Five workers are dead and one, Gary Marine Jr., survived. The investigations should be vigorous, TECO's shareholders rather than its customers should pay the financial costs for the misjudgments — and this dangerous practice should be permanently banned.