Despite millions in losses, no layoffs at reopened power plant

Lisa Guerriero

Although questions remain about the tragic accident that killed three workers last fall, Salem Harbor Power Station is back up and running.

Officials and workers have faced dual challenges in the past five months, racing against the clock to return the station to operation and investigating the cause of the Nov. 6 steam explosion.

Dominion, the parent company of the station, said a boiler tube ruptured, letting loose a high-pressure, high-heat blast of steam that killed Mark Mansfield of Peabody (formerly of Salem), Phil Robinson of Beverly and Mathew Indeglia of Lawrence.

Donations from residents, co-workers and others helped raise about $300,000 for the families of the victims.

“We’ve had tremendous outreach from the community,” said Dan Weekley, a spokesman for Dominion, noting that many people were eager to know when the plant would reopen. “The outpouring has just been outstanding.”

The explosion forced a nearly five-month shutdown of the plant, which supplies electricity to a larger power grid in New England. For Weekley, the closure underscored how important the station is to the northeast.

“I think people recognize that New England operates as a region when it comes to energy. Yes, other power stations had to pick up the load… but that’s only a short-term fix,” Weekley said. “Salem Harbor Power Plant is needed for supplying power in New England.”

The first boiler, Unit 2, came back on line Saturday, March 29, and Unit 1 is expected to follow this weekend. Both are 80-megawatt, coal-fired units. Unit 4, which is a 435-megawatt, oil-fueled boiler, is still receiving standard maintenance and is expect to be running again in the next month.

Unit 3, the one involved in the explosion, could be ready as early as mid-May, but will not return to service until approved by the Essex County District Attorney’s office, which is leading the investigation.

“Unit 3 is still part of the investigation that’s being led by the district attorney’s office and being supported by the Mass. Department of Public Safety …” said Weekley. Because Dominion is not heading up the investigation, he said,  “It’s hard to say a specific timeframe.”

Steve O’Connell, a spokesman for the DA's office, said investigation is ongoing, and there is no specific timeline for when the results might be released.

The tube that ruptured, and other parts from the affected boiler, were sent to Texas to be examined by an independent agency.

“There was a series of components that were shipped out and were analyzed,” said Weekley.

The test results are in, but O’Connell said they must remain confidential while the investigation continues.

James “Red” Simpson, business manager of the Local IBEW 326 union that includes most of the station’s workers, said it was a relief that all his workers were kept on staff during the extensive cleanup and investigation.

The price of the cleanup and investigation, combined with the expense of shutting down operations for months, caused a multimillion-dollar financial loss to Dominion.

“All I can do is estimate. One of last figures I had heard, it’s relatively close to a million a day,” said Simpson. “I’m just relieved that none of my members were laid off.”

The company has spent the past months cleaning debris and asbestos-laden ash throughout the plant and testing and inspecting the machinery that fuels the station.

The roughly 150 workers, 100 of them union members and the rest mostly management, all pitched during the cleaning, testing and reopening process. Outside contractors were brought in to assist.

“This was a huge undertaking,” said Simpson. “There was no way we had enough people do it ourselves.”

The station’s boiler units are inspected and worked on every year as a normal operating procedure, and the work usually takes four to eight weeks. For the unit in the accident, Unit 3, that inspection was even more intense.

The state required extensive boiler inspection for all the units before they could begin going back on line.

“All the tubes were X-ray tested and cleared by the state, then reissued state certifications,” said Simpson. “To my knowledge, they X-rayed pretty much every square inch of them.”

Any worker or inspector who came to the station during the past five months had to wear suit with a respirator and enter and exit through a decontamination area.

“That makes for a hard day’s work, when you’re in de-con [decontamination] suits and full-face respirators,” said Simpson.

A Salem native, Simpson said the power station contributes to the city in jobs and vital tax dollars. So while some people remain opposed to the station due to health and environmental concerns, Simpson was relieved when he saw smoke coming from the plant and knew it was up and running again. He had in mind the 100 workers whose jobs had a bit more security with the station reopening.

“It’s a load off the employees' minds. So now they can move forward,” he said. “The day I saw it, I was coming down Route 128, it put a smile on my face.”

But the accident last fall remains on the forefront.

“What happened before will never be forgotten,” said Simpson. “The three gentlemen who lost their lives will never be forgotten.”