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Newspaper investigation following fatal accident at Florida power station highlights unsafe practices

23 August 2017

On June 29, molten coal slag spilled onto six workers as they tried to clear a blockage in a tank during routine maintenance at the Tampa Electric Co (TECO) Big Bend power plant at Apollo Beach, south of Tampa. Two of the six died immediately, three others succumbed to their injuries over the following weeks and a sixth is still in hospital with serious injuries.

Big Bend power station - Image: Wikimedia
Big Bend power station - Image: Wikimedia

In a major investigation, the Tampa Bay Times has looked into operational practices at the Big Bend power plant in Florida and concludes that the incident that resulted in the deaths of five contractors in June is particularly dangerous and may have been carried out in a bid to save TECO money.

To understand the accident, Times reporters interviewed 14 current and former TECO employees, examined the company’s safety manual, reviewed textbooks on power plant operations and analysed hundreds of pages of records filed with the state Public Service Commission and the US Energy Information Administration.

They then spoke with 11 power plant experts and operators from across the country, all of whom said working at the bottom of a slag tank with the boiler online is dangerous, and most coal-fired plants ban the practice.

They also interviewed TECO CEO Gordon Gillette, who acknowledged the procedure’s risk and said a major safety review was underway to see if the procedure should be changed.

The investigation unearthed the fact that after a similar incident at another TECO plant in 1997 when four workers were seriously injured, clearing blockages in the slag tank with the boiler above still in operation was banned at Big Bend, but was allowed again despite union objections sometime after 2007.

The Times speculates that one reason for this might be the expense of shutting down and restarting the boiler, estimated at up to $250,000 a time. Despite this, many other US coal-fired plants of similar design are shut down when there are blockages to be cleared or maintenance work is carried out below.

It quotes a station manager at Nebraska Public Power District’s Sheldon Station saying that working at the bottom of a slag tank with the boiler online has not been allowed in the 30 years he has been at the plant, and this was confirmed by three other managers at different US power stations.

TECO officials said they had done similar work hundreds of times with the boiler online, including six maintenance jobs on slag tanks this year, but the CEO confirmed to the Times that no worker would be asked to clean out a slag tank with the boiler running until the company and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had finished their investigations.

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