TECO gets $500,000 fine, probation in 2017 explosion that killed 5 in Tampa Bay

Tampa Electric Co. pleaded guilty to violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards in a plea agreement filed in May.
Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station is seen in Apollo Beach.
Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station is seen in Apollo Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]
Published Aug. 19, 2022|Updated Aug. 19, 2022

A federal judge sentenced Tampa Electric Co. to a $500,000 fine and three years of probation for a 2017 explosion that killed five people at its Apollo Beach power plant.

The sentence from Judge Charlene Honeywell of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, announced in a news release Friday from the Department of Justice, follows a plea agreement filed in the Tampa-based court in May in which TECO pleaded guilty to violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

The fine is the maximum allowed under law for a violation such as this, according to the release. TECO also must follow a safety compliance plan.

“Our office is proud to have partnered with DOJ’s Environmental Crimes Section, the FBI, and the Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General to shine a light on this willful violation of OSHA safety standards in order to deter such conduct and ensure that workers are protected in the future,” U.S. Attorney Roger B. Handberg for the Middle District of Florida said in the release.

In June 2017, TECO sent workers to clear a blockage of hardened slag — a molten coal by-product that drips from a furnace into a cooling tank underneath it.

TECO did not shut down the furnace when the blockage occurred and instead called in a contractor to clear it with high-pressure water while the system still was running. The slag gushed out from the tank and onto the workers.

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

TECO employee Michael McCort, 60, of Riverview, and subcontractor Christopher Irvin, 40, of Tampa, died at the scene. Subcontractors Antonio Navarrete, 21, of Wimauma; Amando Perez, 56, of Wimauma; and Frank Lee Jones, 55, of Tampa died in the weeks that followed.

“We reaffirm our commitment to hold ourselves accountable for this tragedy, and to ensure our people are safe as part of the world-class safety culture all of us at Tampa Electric are working together to build,” TECO president and CEO Archie Collins said in a statement Friday.

In the agreement, TECO admitted it did not hold a pre-job briefing with the contractors. It also stated the company had reached civil settlements with the estates of those killed, as well as with those who were injured.

“TECO’s willful violation had catastrophic consequences, including five workers dead and several more injured, underlining the importance of workplace safety standards,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in the Friday release. “The department takes this conduct very seriously, and accordingly pursued the maximum remedy available under the law.”