Thursday, April 19, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Tampa Electric customers should not pay for utility's fatal misjudgments

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.

Comments
Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Anyone looking to make Hillsborough County government bigger, costlier, more dysfunctional and less of a regional force should love the idea that Commissioner Sandy Murman rolled out this week. She proposes enlarging the seven-member board to nine, e...
Updated: 16 minutes ago
Editorial: Improving foster care in Hillsborough

Editorial: Improving foster care in Hillsborough

A new foster care provider in Hillsborough County is poised to take over operations in May, only months after its predecessor was fired for what was alleged to be a pattern of failing to supervise at-risk children in its care. Many of the case manage...
Published: 04/18/18

Another voice: Back to postal reform

President Donald Trump is angry at Amazon for, in his tweeted words, "costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy." Yet in more recent days, Trump has at least channeled his feelings in what could prove...
Published: 04/17/18
Updated: 04/18/18
Editorial: Congress should protect independence of special counsel

Editorial: Congress should protect independence of special counsel

A bipartisan Senate bill clarifying that only the attorney general or a high-ranking designee could remove a special prosecutor would send an important message amid President Donald Trump’s attacks on the investigation into Russia’s inter...
Published: 04/16/18
Updated: 04/17/18
Editorial: Don’t fall for Constitution Revision Commission’s tricks

Editorial: Don’t fall for Constitution Revision Commission’s tricks

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission has wasted months as a politically motivated scam masquerading as a high-minded effort to ask voters to improve the state’s fundamental document. The commission on Monday added amendments to the Nove...
Published: 04/16/18
Editorial: Redner’s court win on medical marijuana sends message

Editorial: Redner’s court win on medical marijuana sends message

Florida regulators have done far too little to make voter-approved medical marijuana widely available for patients suffering from chronic illnesses. A circuit court judge in Tallahassee ruled last week there is a price for that obstruction, finding t...
Published: 04/15/18
Updated: 04/16/18
Editorial: Hillsborough commission should quit expanding urban area

Editorial: Hillsborough commission should quit expanding urban area

Any movement on modernizing local transportation is welcome, even small steps like the million dollars the state recently approved to design a Tampa Bay regional transit plan.But the region won’t make any progress on transportation, its single most p...
Published: 04/13/18
Updated: 04/18/18

Editorial: Fight harder on citrus greening

A new report by scientists advising the federal government finds no breakthrough discovery for managing citrus greening, a chronic disease killing Florida’s citrus industry. This should be a wake-up call to bring greater resources to the fight.The re...
Published: 04/11/18
Updated: 04/13/18

Editorial: Floridians should focus more on health

A new snapshot of the nation’s health shows a mixed picture for Florida and the challenges that residents and the health care community face in improving the quality of life.Americans are living longer, exercising more and doing better at managing th...
Published: 04/11/18
Updated: 04/13/18
Editorial: 5 key issues where Scott, Nelson differ in Senate race

Editorial: 5 key issues where Scott, Nelson differ in Senate race

Gov. Rick Scott kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign last week by reciting tired lines about career politicians and mischaracterizing himself as an outsider. That pitch may have worked during the tea party wave eight years ago, but now the Republican ...
Published: 04/10/18
Updated: 04/13/18