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US electric company fined $500,000 for 2017 explosion that killed five

10 May 2022

Tampa Electric (TECO) is facing a fine of $500,000 (£405K) in relation to an explosion that killed five workers at its Apollo Beach coal power plant in Tampa, Florida in June 2017. In court on May 6, TECO pleaded guilty to violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and now faces the fine as well as an order to pay compensation to the families of the victims.

TECO's Big Bend power plant at Apollo Beach, south of Tampa - Image: Shutterstock
TECO's Big Bend power plant at Apollo Beach, south of Tampa - Image: Shutterstock

In a statement, TECO’s President and CEO Archie Collins said: “All of us at Tampa Electric hold the families of our late colleagues and co-workers in our hearts. We have accepted full responsibility, and we hold ourselves accountable as we continuously work to improve our safety programs and safety culture.”

The incident occurred on 29 June 2017 when a group of six TECO workers attempted to dislodge a blockage of molten coal byproduct (slag) from a cooling tank during routine maintenance at the utility’s Big Bend power plant at Apollo Beach, south of Tampa. The molten coal slag spilled from the tank onto the workers, immediately killing two. Three others succumbed to their injuries over the following weeks and a sixth received treatment in hospital for serious injuries.

As a result of a major investigation, the Tampa Bay Times looked into operational practices at the Big Bend power plant and concluded that the incident was 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’s CEO at the time, 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 speculated that one reason for this may have been the expense of shutting down and restarting the boiler, estimated at up to $250,000 a time.

In late 2017, OSHA issued $139,424 in fines against TECO for the incident and said the utility did not have the right procedures in place, nor did the workers have proper protective gear. The fines included two ‘willful’ violations that were grouped together for one penalty, and two serious Personal Protective Equipment violations that were also grouped together.

Contractor Gaffin Industrial Services, which employed two of the deceased, received two serious citations and a $21,548 penalty for five violations for failure to provide personal protective equipment that would have protected workers against burns.

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