‘Fireball’ explosion killed 5 workers after Florida company ignored safety rules, feds say

·4 min read
Chris O'Meara/AP

A Florida power company admitted its responsibility in a 2017 explosion that caused the death of five workers after several safety procedures were ignored.

On May 5, the Tampa Electric Company pleaded guilty to a charge of willfully violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards resulting in a death. The company could face a half-million dollar fine, court documents show.

“All of us at Tampa Electric hold the families of our late colleagues and coworkers 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,” Archie Collins, president and chief executive officer at Tampa Electric, told McClatchy News in a statement.

“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 in the statement.

The electric company (TECO) operated several power plants in Florida, including Big Bend Station, located just south of Tampa in Hillsborough County, court documents state.

On June 29, 2017, in the hours leading up to the explosion at the power plant, employees were asked to carry out what is usually considered routine maintenance on a slag tank.

Big Bend housed four, large coal-fire furnaces, prosecutors said, three of which would create a “molten by-product known as ‘slag’” that could reach 1,000 degree Fahrenheit.

The slag would fall to the bottom of the boiler and eventually drain into either of the two “slag tanks” attached to the boilers, court documents state.

Prosecutors said the slag tanks were designed to be filled with water so when the molten slag came in contact with it, it would cool down and harden until it became brittle.

Once brittle, employees could safely pulverize and eject the slag.

That day, “hardened slag had accumulated at the top and the bottom of the slag tank and could not be removed,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.

Prosecutors said instead of shutting down the furnace, TECO brought in a contractor to perform high-pressure water blasting to clear the slag while plant operations continued as normal, the release states.

Several workers were unsure of the correct procedure and were not able to get answers before starting the water blasting, court documents show. When OSHA asked nine TECO operators who worked on the day of the explosion whether they had seen the standard procedure before, only one said they had seen it done and only once.

Prosecutors said a job briefing was required before starting the blasting work — but it was not held that day.

A meeting would have helped “TECO to recognize that they were dealing with an uncommon simultaneous blockage that posed a unique danger and that should have prompted TECO to take appropriate measures to forego the work and shut down the unit instead,” prosecutors said.

Instead, at about 3 p.m. employees started water blasting at the blocked slag tank, failing to follow numerous safety procedures, court documents show.

After only minutes of operating the blasting gun, the slag tank exploded, “violently” expelling steam.

“Witnesses described seeing ‘black and hot rocks’ and that it ‘looked like a volcano and a jet dragster. It was a fireball with molten slag coming out. It was liquid slag/lava on fire.’”

Five employees were killed in the explosion.

About an hour after the explosion, workers were able to find the appropriate procedure in the company’s digital “library” — but a manager of operations stated that they “normally don’t follow [them] to the letter” and “view them as a guide.”

“Had TECO complied with OSHA’s workplace safety standards, conducted a pre-job briefing and followed its own procedure, these senseless deaths could have been prevented,” U.S. Attorney Roger B. Handberg for the Middle District of Florida said in the release. “Our hearts go out to the victims’ families as well as other TECO employees and contractors impacted by this catastrophic event.”

Court documents state that following the incident, TECO negotiated confidential civil settlements with relatives of the employees killed in the explosion as well as with others harmed by it.

In its plea agreement, TECO committed to adopt “an effective program to prevent and detect violations of law” by the time of sentencing.

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