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Title: Three Workers Burned at Colstrip Generating Plant

By JAN FALSTAD Of The Gazette Staff

Three workers at the Colstrips Unit 1, a coal-fired electric generating plant, were burned early Friday morning in an electrical flash near some breaker boxes. Firefighters were also called to douse a fire caused by the flash.

The injured men are shift supervisor Dale Anderson, 50, Billings; lead plant operator Lynn Vaught, 54, and electrician Mark Noel, 53, both of Colstrip. The men, all long-time plant employees, were flown to a burn center in Salt Lake City.

Anderson had third-degree burns over 42 percent of his body, according to a PPL Montana spokesman. Vaught had second and third-degree burns over 35 percent of his body.

At 9 p.m. Friday, a spokesman with the University of Utah Health Services Center said all three men are in critical, but stable condition.

The victims families were flying to Salt Lake City to be with the men.

Mike Enterline, PPL Montanas vice president and chief operating officer and a 23-year Colstrip employee, said Fridays accident is unique.

Weve never had an incident that involved three people. I cant recall anything of this magnitude, Enterline said.

He said the accident occurred after Unit 1 tripped and went off-line at 12:35 a.m. An electrical arc flashed in a mezzanine-level room that contains 7,200-volt breakers, considered medium-high voltage. The breakers supply power to the large motors in the plant.

The responsible employees in such an event went down to investigate where the trip occurred, which was in a part of the plant below the turbine, he said. As they were on the scene, another electrical arc occurred. The arc that is created when you get one at that voltage is a pretty significant arc. It ionizes the surrounding air and it is my understanding that the arc and flash is what burned the workers.

Enterline said it appears that a piece of equipment, which feeds water to the boilers and sits above the breaker boxes, was leaking.

Apparently, we had water dripping onto the 7,200 volt switch gear and that was an apparent cause, he said.

Ed Hatten, chief of Colstrips volunteer fire department, said either the flash or arc knocked the steel panel doors off the electrical box and started the fire. About 15 firefighters, six emergency medical technicians and sheriffs officers responded within 10 minutes of the call, Hatten said. He said PPL employees handed large extinguishers to his firefighters and the fire was out in about an hour.

There was just a lot of smoke and no lights. All the power was out at the plant, Hatten said. He said other plant employees knew that three men may be injured and were looking for them.

He said emergency personnel got the burn victims to the Colstrip clinic quickly.

Both Deaconess Hospital and St. Vincent Hospital sent an airplane to Colstrip and each plane transported a victim to the Salt Lake City burn center. Because the Salt Lake City burn unit was using its airplane elsewhere Friday morning, the St. Vincent HELP helicopter flew to Colstrip and brought the third man to its Billings hospital. When an airplane from Pocatello, Idaho, arrived, the last victim also was flown to Salt Lake City.

Enterline said both units were shut down  Unit 1 for the investigation and repairs and Unit 2 as a safety precaution because both units share a common power source. Together, these two plants produce 614 megawatts of power. Units 3 and 4, which are on different electrical grids, are operating normally, he said.

Before the accident, Unit 2 was scheduled to be shut down Friday night for a once-a-year maintenance program. Enterline said about 100 contract workers, in addition to regular PPL employees, were on site ready to start the maintenance work.

Hatten commended everyone who responded to the emergency and said some were heroic. We knew there were three people badly hurt and these plant people, the EMTs, the firemen and the sheriffs officers just kept going at it, Hatten said.

Our thoughts are with the families of these three workers. We will do everything in our power to help these men and their families during this time of trial, said Roger Petersen, PPL Montana president and chief executive officer.

Last December, PPL Global paid $759 million to buy Montana Power Co.s interest in three of the four Colstrip power plants and 11 dams in this state. PPL owns half of Units 1 and 2. Puget Sound Energy of Bellevue, Wash., owns the other half. However, PPL is responsible for operating and maintaining all four Colstrip units.

PPL Montana is a subsidiary of PPL Global Inc. of Fairfax, Va. PPL Global, in turn, is a subsidiary of PPL Corp. based in Allentown, Penn.

Jan Falstad can be reached at: (406) 657-1306, or by e-mail at:


-- (, April 29, 2000

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