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Year after acquiring TECO Energy, Emera faces crisis management in worker deaths

TAMPA — A year ago to the day that Canadian energy company Emera Inc. acquired TECO Energy, its Tampa operation is embroiled in what could well be the biggest public relations problem in its history.

Two people are dead and four others are seriously injured after an accident at TECO's Tampa Electric power plant in Apollo Beach Thursday afternoon. Since the time of the incident, TECO and Emera have been tight-lipped about sharing information about the accident — a news conference Friday afternoon offered little details. Emera's chief operating officer, Scott Balfour, and John Hollohan, the company's director of safety, arrived in Tampa Friday morning to work with the TECO Energy team on site, said Marley MacDonald, a spokeswoman for Emera.

"Team members in Florida and the families of those affected are being offered support in this difficult time," MacDonald said. "With our shared commitment across Emera to ensure safety of life above all other considerations, this is a heartbreaking moment for all of us."

But it remains to be seen how Emera or TECO plan to handle it from a corporate communications standpoint going forward.

RELATED COVERAGE: Investigation continues into explosion at Tampa Electric Co. plant that killed two, injured four

"It's very important to have corporate leadership out front and to be as transparent as you can be in this situation," said Kyle Parks, principal of St. Petersburg-based B2 Communications, a public relations firm. Parks previously worked in corporate communications for Tampa's conglomerate Walter Industries, which would later spin off a coal business in Alabama. Parks was there in 2001, when 13 coal miners died in multiple explosions in a company-owned coal mine in Brookwood, Ala.

It was a two-year process of strategic corporate communications that helped the company navigate employee deaths, federal investigations and civil lawsuits, Parks explained.

"It's a classic corporate communications rule that you need to say something. We see all too often companies making the mistake of not saying much of anything," he explained. "You start by saying you're taking the situation seriously, and will be taking the necessary steps to make sure it won't happen again."

There have been numerous case studies on how high-profile accidents and the crisis management response by the companies involved affect a corporation in the long term. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people in 2010 and ultimately cost BP, formerly British Petroleum, billions. The long lasting environmental effects rippled throughout Gulf Coast communities, especially in Florida, for years. It didn't completely cripple the company, but it severely weakened it, analysts say.

Another local energy company, MagneGas Corp., experienced an explosion at a fuel facility in Tarpon Springs in 2015 that killed one and severely injured another employee. MagneGas is a small alternative energy company that employs around 30 people who work in a 5,000-square-foot property just north of the Sponge Docks district. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration evaluated MagneGas' working conditions after the incident and cited the company on several violations, including lack of employee training on dealing with flammable environments and not requiring flame-retardant clothing. MagneGas paid $52,045 in fines and the company created a safety director position.

"Preparedness is the big thing here," said Joseph Grano, president of Next-Mark, a communications firm in Sarasota. Grano has years of experience running crisis management strategies for hospitals. "Were they prepared for this before the accident? Most companies have a plan in place. Right now they need to be communicating to their employees what's going on, and sharing a clear and consistent message."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Two dead, four injured after ''major incident'' at TECO power plant

In this day and age of social media, where news can go viral around the globe in a matter of minutes, Grano says companies need to be in sync with the authorities and working with the media to share their messages.

"This is a public issue because there's a safety factor involved," Grano said. "The press isn't going to wait and while a quiet period is expected, it shouldn't linger. They should be prepared to answer questions as soon as possible, sooner than the first 24 hours."

This isn't the first time TECO's Tampa Electric business has dealt with a major accident before. Twenty years ago almost to the day, four workers were seriously injured during routine maintenance of a slag tank at a plant in Port Sutton. Two of the injured workers sustained first- and second- degree burns in the June 1997 incident.

TECO's Apollo Beach power plant, located off Big Bend Road, opened in 1970 off the Hillsborough County coast. Unit 2 went online in 1973, according to TECO's website.

In 2010, a TECO lineman died from electric shock after making contact with a power line, according to an OSHA report. The company paid a $6,300 fine.

Emera Inc. of Nova Scotia acquired TECO Energy, including Tampa Electric, last year for $10.4 billion. The deal made Emera a top 20 North American regulated utility. Emera has operations in Canada, Maine, the Caribbean, and now, Florida and New Mexico. Emera's stock was down less than 1 percent as of early afternoon on Friday.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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