TECO pleads guilty, faces $500,000 fine in 2017 explosion that killed 5

Tampa Electric Co. has reached settlements with victims’ families and must implement new safety procedures.
Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station at 6990 Dickman Road, in Apollo Beach.
Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station at 6990 Dickman Road, in Apollo Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]
Published May 6, 2022|Updated May 6, 2022

Five years after an explosion led to the deaths of five workers at its Apollo Beach power plant, Tampa Electric Co. has pleaded guilty to violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

The plea agreement, filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa, requires TECO to pay up to a $500,000 fine. The government will ask for a sentence of three years’ probation, including payments to the victims’ families and requiring TECO to implement a safety compliance plan.

In a statement, TECO president and CEO Archie Collins said the company took “full responsibility” for the accident.

“All of us at Tampa Electric hold the families of our late colleagues and coworkers in our hearts,” Collins said. “We have accepted full responsibility, and we hold ourselves accountable as we continuously work to improve our safety programs and safety culture.”

According to the plea agreement, the company has reached civil settlements with the victims’ estates, as well as with others harmed by the incident. A TECO spokesperson said the families have already been paid.

The explosion happened in June 2017, when a group of workers were trying to dislodge a blockage of a molten coal byproduct called slag from a cooling tank. The slag gushed from the tank, killing four and seriously injuring two others, one of whom later died.

Those killed were TECO employee Michael McCort, 60, of Riverview; and subcontractors Amando Perez, 56, of Wimauma; Frank Lee Jones, 55, of Tampa; Christopher Irvin, 40, of Tampa; and Antonio Navarrete, 21, of Wimauma.

In late 2017, the U.S. Labor Department fined TECO $139,424 for failing to adhere to energy control and employee protection policies. A subcontracting company, Riverview’s Gaffin Industrial Services, was fined $21,548.

In 2019, Jones’ widow filed a wrongful death suit against another subcontractor, Houston-based Brace Integrated Services, accusing the company of negligence in her husband’s death. In December, a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge ruled in Brace’s favor, writing that “the risk was put in place by TECO.”

This wasn’t TECO’s first fatal accident. From 1997 to 2017, records showed that 10 workers died in accidents at TECO facilities, more than any other energy provider in Florida.

Related: Tampa Electric knew the procedure was dangerous. It sent workers in anyway.

In 1997 and again in 2011, TECO examined and updated its safety procedures for handling and clearing slag. But according to the plea agreement, the slag procedure was not stored in physical form at TECO’s Big Bend Station in Apollo Beach, “nor was it easy to locate on the company’s intranet.” Eight of nine workers interviewed from the day of the 2017 accident said they’d never seen the slag procedure, the agreement said.

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As a result, the government determined that TECO violated an OSHA statute that “requires employers to ensure that, before each job, a job briefing is held that covers hazards associated with the job.”

The plea agreement requires TECO to institute a new safety plan and deliver periodic updates to OSHA; it also requires periodic third-party audits and inspections.

“I want to thank our dedicated employees at Big Bend, and throughout the company, for their efforts to honor the memories of those lost and injured, as well as their commitment to provide our customers with safe, reliable electricity — while maintaining a safety-first mindset every minute of every day,” Collins said.

Informed of TECO’s guilty plea Friday by phone, the aunt of victim Irvin said the family declined to comment, saying that after five years, the incident was still too difficult to discuss.