A federal judge on Friday fined a Florida power company the maximum penalty of $500,000 for violating a federal safety rule and causing a 2017 explosion at a coal-fired power plant near Tampa that killed five people and injured several others, federal prosecutors said.
Tampa Electric Company pleaded guilty in May to “willfully” violating an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule that required workers receive a pre-job briefing about the work they were to perform, including on potential hazards and the procedures involved, prosecutors said. Failing to hold the briefing caused the death of five employees, prosecutors said in court documents.
As part of the sentence, Judge Charlene Honeywell of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida also placed Tampa Electric on probation for three years and required it to comply with a safety compliance plan.
According to the plea agreement, Tampa Electric had previously negotiated confidential civil settlements with the families of each person killed in the blast and several others harmed by it.
Tampa Electric’s “willful violation had catastrophic consequences, including five workers dead and several more injured, underlining the importance of workplace safety standards,” Todd Kim, an assistant attorney general with the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement on Friday.
Officials from Tampa Electric were not made available for an interview, but a spokeswoman released a statement from Archie Collins, the company’s president and chief executive.
“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,” the statement said.
On June 29, 2017, slag — a glass-like waste product formed after the remains of burned coal are mixed with cold water — had clogged one of the slag tanks on a coal-fired furnace at the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach, Fla., which is operated by Tampa Electric.
Rather than shutting down the furnace, prosecutors said, Tampa Electric called in a contractor to perform a water-blasting technique to clear the slag, even though the written procedure for this work could not be located.
The ensuing explosion sprayed the workers with molten slag, which can reach temperatures far above 1,000 degrees, the authorities said. Prosecutors said one witness described the blast as “like a volcano and a jet dragster. It was a fireball with molten slag coming out.”
After the explosion, O.S.H.A. investigators interviewed nine Tampa Electric operators who were working that day and found that only one had ever seen the company’s procedure on water-blasting slag tanks, according to court records.
According to prosecutors, holding a pre-job briefing would have helped Tampa Electric realize that it was dealing with an uncommon blockage posing a “unique danger” and prompted the company to stop the work and shut down the unit.
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