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Mechanic responsible for causing power plant fire no longer with Colorado Springs Utilities

By Scott Harrison
Published On: May 30 2014 08:07:28 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 02 2014 11:35:00 AM CDT

Authorities say a mechanic changed a wrong filter that sprayed oil on hot pipes.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -

A spokesman says the mechanic who made a mistake that lead to the Drake Power Plant fire has "separated employment" with Colorado Springs Utilities.

A report released Friday (5/30/14) found that the experienced mechanic changed the wrong filter, resulting in lubricating oil being sprayed onto superheated pipes. The mechanic was initially placed on leave and will not be charged with a crime, officials said.

"It was an accident, just human error," said CSFD Fire Marshal Brett Lacey.

However, officials still can't explain how the mechanic's mistake got past a system of checks and balances designed to clearly label equipment needing repair and make it safe for mechanics to work on equipment.

"What was going through his mind, we don't know," said George Luke, the utility's chief of energy services.  "We will be reviewing the accident to see what could have been done differently, or what in addition could have been done."

CSU said it will review a statement from a Drake control room operator that the oil has caused "several fires over the years," and determine if there's a connection with the May fire.

Lacey defended the utility, saying the plant is safe and well-run while implying that the best safety procedures work only when properly followed.

"In an industrial setting like a power plant, human error is not unusual," he said.  "There are risks like these all over our community.  Our firefighters aggressively fought the fire to prevent an explosion.  The utility has installed special fire suppression systems.  The plant's neighbors can feel safe."

Lacey said CSFD will work with CSU and make recommendations, if necessary, on improving the plant's operational process and safety procedures.

"CSU did an exceptional job in helping us," said Assistant Fire Marshal Kris Cooper.  "We reviewed their maintenance and repair procedures.  For the most part, we think they're very tight in their operations."

Of the three Drake generators shut down after the fire, CSU hopes to restart one by the end of July and a second this fall.  Damage to a third generator still has yet to be determined.

Officials said they're sensitive to customer concerns about raising utility rates to pay for power lost from Drake, hiring a Chicago firm to assist in the investigation, and not having an insurance policy to cover all costs related to the fire.

"It's not common in our industry to buy that kind of insurance," Luke said.  "You can buy it (but) it's very expensive and it generally has a 45- to 90-day delay before it kicks in."

Luke said it's unlikely that CSU would purchase the insurance because the expense would require a rate increase.

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