Southern California Edison Co. plans to dispute a highly critical report that blames a lethal 1985 Nevada power plant explosion on the utility's "grossly negligent operation" and its disregard for safety matters.
Edison said it "strongly disagrees" with the findings of the report on an accident June 9, 1985, at the Mohave Generating Station, in which a high-pressure steam pipe ruptured, killing six workers and injuring 10 others. Edison instead blames the blast on a faulty weld.
The report, prepared by consultant Margaret C. Felts for the consumer advocacy branch of the state Public Utilities Commission, is the first step in a case that could shift the accident's multimillion-dollar cost from Edison ratepayers to its shareholders.
Edison plans to file its response to the report Feb. 28, said spokesman Paul Klein. At the same time, the PUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates will file an additional report that will supplement the original one.
Hearings will follow, and the commission will eventually decide whether Edison acted imprudently. If so, further hearings will assess the financial effects of the accident and who should pay for it.
The dispute centers on an accident at the 1,580-megawatt coal-fired plant near Laughlin, Nev. Edison, which owns 56% of the 20-year-old plant, operates it for three other Nevada and California utilities.
On the day of the accident, a steam pipe pressurized at more than 600 pounds per square inch burst open along a 30-inch seam, punching a hole in a control room wall and flooding the room with asbestos fragments and steam heated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
One worker was killed instantly, five others died later in hospital burn wards and 10 more suffered injuries from the superheated steam.
A report on the accident was completed in May, 1991, but was not released until Christmas Day because of Edison's objections that it would compromise civil suits.
Although several factors contributed to the pipe's failure, the report said Edison's actions--or lack of actions--were "primary and critical factors in causing the accident":
* Edison knowingly operated the system at temperatures above design specification for long periods of time, and operators were unable to control the temperatures within the system as a result of a "design flaw."
* Even so, the pipe, part of a "reheat" system, was not routinely maintained or inspected, though the pipe shifted and distorted because of exposure to abnormal stresses, the report said.
* Edison's management made high production a priority over safety. In 1979, Edison disciplined a supervisor for ordering an unauthorized inspection of unrelated pipe welds. "The fear SCE management has instilled in its employees is counterproductive to safety and increases the chances that additional incidents as serious as this one may occur in the future," the report said.
The report says it found no evidence that the accident was caused by a specific action on the day of the pipe failure.
The report recommends sweeping changes to Edison's policies, including annual reports to the PUC on the utility's safety training, inspection and maintenance programs. In addition, the report argues that, because the accident was avoidable, the costs should be borne by Edison's shareholders, not its rate-paying customers.
The report makes no attempt to assess the magnitude of such costs. But in prepared testimony, David H. Weiss, program and project supervisor of the fuels branch in the PUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates, cited Edison estimates that the cost to replace power lost during the plant's six-month repair time was $53 million, and that the cost of repairs and other items approached $45 million.
Those estimates don't take into account the amount of settlements reached by the plant's owners in 24 civil suits--amounts that have not been disclosed by litigants.
In a statement, Edison has disputed or denied all of the report's conclusions, blaming the accident on "poor weld quality in pipe supplied by others, not company negligence."
Among other things, Edison says it operated the pipe within safety limits and was in fact able to control the temperatures within the pipe. Edison did not conduct inspections of pipes unless workers suspected a problem, but Klein said the pipe that failed gave no indication of such a problem.
Edison also denies that it fostered an atmosphere of fear in its employees. It admits that a supervisor was disciplined for ordering unauthorized weld inspections, but says the employee was guilty of insubordination. The welds in question were found to be sound, Edison added.