A nearly 40-year-old transformer — the same type which exploded last week causing island-wide power outages on St. Thomas and St. John — is powering the Water and Power Authority’s Unit #13 at the Randolph Harley Power Plant on St. Thomas, without a backup.
This is a concern for WAPA, which must use such old equipment because it lacks the funds to purchase new equipment, due largely to the $18 million the V.I. Government owes the Authority, explained WAPA’s Corporate Communications Officer Cassan-dra Dunn.
“It is a concern,” said Dunn. “We have technical advisors looking at the damage to the other transformer, and they’ll be looking at this one too to make sure we are not anticipating the same type of event that happened on Tuesday (July 17). The interim executive director had a meeting with senior management, and they’ve been directed to look at various areas of concern, and to review and implement some additional safety measures.”
WAPA has been forced to prioritize where its money goes due to the delinquent account, explained Dunn.
“The two transformers cost $1.8 million, and it’s just a question of what’s a priority,” she said. “You sometimes have to apply the limited resources somewhere else. There has not been a lot of money available for capital improvement projects.”
The steam turbine transformer at the power plant caught fire at 4:05 p.m. Tuesday, July 17, injuring several WAPA employees. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, explained Dunn.
“It’s not known what caused the fire, but we have some technical advisors on it now,” she said. “All they’ve told us at this point is there was an internal fault in the transformer. It had to be a contributing factor to the fire, and over the next few days, as the technical advisors do their forensics, so to speak, we should be able to have a more conclusive reason for the internal fault.”
Seven WAPA employees, including five college-aged employees of WAPA’s summer warehouse inventory program, were taken to the R.L. Schneider Hospital following the explosion.
“The five college students had just finished their day of work and were leaving the plant, walking up the road to the exit gate, and just as they were passing, that’s when the fire happened,” said Dunn. “They got caught in the flash of the explosion, and several of them suffered burns.”
One male student, who tried to shield the others from the blast, suffered burns on his arms and chest; one female student suffered burns on one arm; one female student suffered burns on both arms; another female student’s face was singed in the explosion; and one female student injured her back when she was thrown during the explosion, explained Dunn.
One lineman who was nearby when the explosion occurred and ran back to help the injured students was taken to the hospital as a precaution and immediately released, and an operations supervisor who helped to put out the fire was also taken to the hospital and immediately released, Dunn added.
The five college-age students were all released from the hospital by Thursday afternoon, July 19, according to R.L. Schneider Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Amos Carty.
Several agencies responded to the fire, including the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, the V.I. Police Department, the fire department and the U.S. Coast Guard, explained Dunn.
“WAPA personnel put the fire out before the fire service arrived, and of course the firefighters had to come in and certify that it was officially out,” she said. “The police were there for crowd control, and the Coast Guard had to check the shorelines to see if there were any oil spills, or if any security had been breached.”
There were no oil spills or breaches in security, explained Dunn.
WAPA employees worked diligently through the evening and power was restored to 90 percent on St. John by midnight on Tuesday. Cruz Bay was among the first areas where power was restored around 10 p.m., explained Dunn.
“The WAPA employees did an excellent job,” she said. “We anticipated we wouldn’t be able to bring up the plant until sometime on Wednesday, but they had everything back up by midnight. We’re grateful the damage wasn’t any greater, and we’re grateful the students don’t have life-threatening injuries.”
Rolling Blackouts Unnecessary
WAPA anticipated rolling blackouts on Wednesday as the Authority attempted to restore power; however, the blackouts never occurred as power was fully restored.
“We were very fortunate there,” said Dunn. “We weren’t sure if the units we were able to bring up would sustain the load, which peaks at a certain megawatts every day. At a certain point, we were even able to take the hotels, which we had asked to use their generators, and put them back on our grids.”
Now that power has been fully restored, WAPA hopes to improve its operations, explained Dunn.
“Certainly, we’ll take a closer look at how we can reinforce the area to protect that particular part of the plant,” she said. “We’ll just look at some technical and logistical things we can do to improve those areas.”