Fire hits TECO second time in two weeks
By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- For the second time in two weeks, conveyor belts have caught fire at the Tampa Electric Co. plant in Port Sutton. The latest blaze occurred Tuesday night, cutting off the flow of coal, the plant's energy source.
A spokeswoman said repairs to the conveyor belt system would take several days. Until then, coal in the field cannot be transported to the inside of the plant, where it is burned to produce electricity.
But as of Wednesday, TECO officials said disruptions in service are unlikely.
"We have diminished capacity," said spokeswoman Laura Plumb. She said the company can buy power from other sources if necessary. TECO serves 570,000 customers in Hillsborough, parts of Polk, Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando counties.
Paramedics treated seven TECO employees for mild smoke inhalation, said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Capt. Ray Yeakley. None had to be hospitalized.
One of two conveyor belts at Gannon Power Station caught fire two weeks ago, causing less damage. Coal fires are not surprising, given its flammable nature, Yeakley said.
"This is not an uncommon occurrence because whenever you're dealing with coal, you've got coal dust and heat from the conveyor, which can ignite it," he said.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the latest fire, said area director Leslie Grove. Plumb said TECO is doing its own investigation.
"If procedures need to be changed, we'll do it," she said.
It's not the first time the Apollo Beach plant has come under scrutiny. In the past three years alone, TECO has been fined more than $35,000.
The worst incident occurred in 1999 when a worker unscrewed a cap on Generator 6, causing hydrogen left inside to ignite. The blast hurled heavy wall panels 400 feet and killed three people. Another 50 were injured, some by thermal burns.
After a six-month investigation, OSHA fined TECO $25,200 for four instances of safety violations and ordered certain precautions, including better labeling on machines. In 2000, TECO was forced to pay OSHA $7,000 for an electrocution.
Plumb said the company's safety record has since improved.
"I did want to point out that in 2001 we achieved our best safety record in 13 years in terms of reportable accidents," she said. "We've made a lot of improvements since the Gannon incidents."
The fire Tuesday night damaged 200 feet of the conveyor belts, which carry coal to the power plants, where six turbines can churn out 12,000 megawatts of power. Fire investigators estimated damage at $100,000.
Firefighters received an emergency call at 11:40 p.m. and took less than an hour to get the blaze under control. Additional personnel were brought in when the flames came within 60 feet of a fuel oil storage tank used for alternate fuel, Yeakley said.
It took three hours to fully extinguish the fire, he said.
The previous fire was to a single conveyor belt. Plumb said the machinery was fully repaired within 13 hours. This one may take a couple of days, she said, because both belts were damaged.
Predictions of mild weather will work in TECO's favor because fewer customers will be cranking up the air conditioning. Only a couple of the turbines are operating these days because of low demand, Plumb said.
-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.
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