What happened?

City still mum on CWLP mishap

City Water, Light and Power won't say what led to a breakdown in November that has shut down a generator and stands to cost the city $1 million and its insurer an additional $4 million.

Human error contributed to the mishap, sources say. Mayor Jim Langfelder and corporation counsel Jim Zerkle said that problems in CWLP's two oldest generators led to the fire at the utility's third-oldest generator, which has been shut down ever since. They weren't more specific. Since January, all four generators have been off-line, and the utility has been meeting the city's needs by purchasing power off the grid instead of generating electricity locally.

click to enlarge Repairs estimated at $5 million.
Repairs estimated at $5 million.

Last week, in an interview with Illinois Times, the mayor mentioned a report when asked about the mishap's cause and what role human error might have played: "I'd have to check the report," the mayor said. Asked Tuesday whether he'd checked the report, Langfelder deferred questions about the mishap's cause to Zerkle and Doug Brown, chief utility engineer.

"As far as the cause, I'd leave it up to Doug Brown to explain it," the mayor said. "Corporation counsel can also explain it."

The newspaper earlier that day had emailed the utility's spokeswoman asking to speak with Brown. The email wasn't answered. Zerkle after this week's council meeting declined to go into details about the incident's cause.

The mayor said that workers deemed responsible could be terminated. "That's a possibility," Langfelder said. "That's a personnel matter."

Illinois Times last week filed a request for documents showing what went wrong as well as disciplinary records and documents showing the amount of power purchases since the generators have been shut down. A response was due Tuesday. The city gave itself a five-day extension, saying that staff needed more time to determine whether the records are exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act. The city also said that the records could not be turned over within the five-day deadline specified in state law because the records were stored "at a different location." It's not clear what that location might be.

Sources say that there was a mechanical problem that resulted in a change in procedure, requiring that plant personnel closely check equipment to ensure that the generator would keep operating properly. The checks weren't accomplished, sources say, which led to the breakdown that resulted in the fire and the generator being shut down.

During executive sessions, aldermen have been briefed at least once on the mishap and its suspected cause, but none contacted by Illinois Times would divulge any details about what went wrong and why, saying that releasing information is a job for CWLP and the executive branch.

"We were definitely told that there were some concerns that these things could have been prevented, that the failure at (generating unit) 33 could have been prevented by proper fulfillment of duties and jobs," Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory said last week.

November's accident came as CWLP is struggling to keep power rates competitive with the private sector. Studies commissioned by the Sierra Club and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce have shown that the city would save millions of dollars by purchasing power from the grid instead of generating electricity from four coal-powered generators. A consultant paid by the city last year concluded much the same thing, finding that the three oldest generators, including the one where fire broke out last year, aren't cost-effective and never will be, given their age, the price of fuel and the cost of complying with environmental regulations.

Aldermen have acknowledged that the two oldest generators must be closed. Langfelder said the goal is to take them off-line this fall. No timetable has been set for decommissioning the generator where the mishap occurred. Aldermen, concerned about potential job losses at CWLP and a Williamsville coal mine, have said they want to keep the generator where fire broke out running as long as possible. The cost of damage assessment and repairs has been pegged at $5 million, with the city covering $1 million and its insurer covering the rest.

Zerkle said that CWLP hasn't received a check yet, but he has no reason to believe that the utility's insurer won't cover losses from the November mishap.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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