TAMPA — Tampa Electric Co. is formally contesting the biting citation the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration handed down in December for a maintenance incident in June that left five workers dead.
At a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Monday, Tampa Electric CEO Nancy Tower said the utility is appealing the finding of a "willful" violation — one of the most severe violations OSHA can give — and a $126,749 fine.
"I can’t accept that ‘willful’ characterization on behalf of the employees of Tampa Electric," she said.
A willful violation, according to OSHA, is given to a company that "knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement" or "acted with plain indifference to employee safety."
"That we would say that ‘Yes, we had plain indifference to the safety of the workers in our organization’ makes no sense and is simply not the case," Tower said.
The utility, she said, has met with OSHA for two informal conferences.
The severity of the incident means that criminal charges could be brought if OSHA refers the case to the Department of Justice following its review.
The violation and fine followed an OSHA investigation into an accident at Tampa Electric’s coal-powered Big Bend Power Station. Workers, a Times investigation found, were asked to perform dangerous maintenance on a boiler in the power plant. Instead of turning the boiler off while maintenance was performed, it was left on, resulting in molten ash dropping on the workers.
Emera Inc., Tampa Electric’s Canadian parent company, named Tower to the top post in Tampa two months ago. From the outset, she emphasized that ensuring the safety of the company’s workers as her highest priority.
Following the June accident, the coal-fired unit was taken offline, causing Tampa Electric to purchase power to replace what the plant would have generated.
That, Tower said, amounted to $4.3 million in additional fuel costs. While the utility could have sought to recover that amount from its customers, it elected to absorb it instead.
"That should be a company cost," Tower said.
Had it asked the Florida Public Service Commission for its customers to foot the bill, the state agency would have determined whether to grant cost recovery by looking at the company’s decisions preceding the accident.
At the time, Tampa Electric spokesperson Cherie Jacobs said the company bought power from other utilities at cost, making its total fuel and purchased power costs for 2017 lower than anticipated.
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