May 6, 2014 12:50 AM by Zach Thaxton

Ex-Utilities board member says Drake fire is no surprise

Monday's fire at the Martin Drake Power Plant came as no surprise to one former member of the Colorado Springs Utilities Board of Directors.  Tim Leigh says the aging facility is primed to burn.

"I'm not surprised that something like this happened, given the age of the power plant and given what we've said is the physical condition of the power plant," Leigh said.  His concern is that the plant, which is more than 80 years old and utilizes three boilers between 40 and 52 years old, is a safety hazard for downtown Colorado Springs.

"That power plant is proximate to the downtown and it's coal, and coal is combustible, and you could have a very dynamic fire or explosion that could lead to great negative impacts on the downown," Leigh said.  "How hazardous is it to have a power plant in the middle of our downtown?  To me, that's a real legitimate question that we're not talking about."

Monday afternoon, fire and utility officials provided an update on Monday's 4-alarm fire at the plant that provides more than one-third of the city's electricity.  Colorado Springs Fire Department Chief Chris Riley said firefighters would remain on-scene through the night monitoring for flare-ups.  "It's probably going to take us quite a long time to completely extinguish," Riley said.  So far, a cause has not been determined.

The fire response was particularly dangerous for firefighters due to the combination of potentially explosive chemicals and fuels in the plant, Riley said.  Hydrogen and coal dust were the primary concerns.  "Whenever you've got fire and hazardous material, the possibility of an explosion certainly is on the minds of firefighters," Riley said.

Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte was not present for the afternoon press conference.  Speaking in his place was Chief Financial Officer Bill Cherrier.  Following the press conference, when asked about Forte's absence, Cherrier said Forte is on personal vacation in San Diego.  Cherrier said Forte was made aware of the fire, but that Utilities personnel have the situation well in-hand and Forte's immediate return from vacation was not necessary.  "I think if my plant was burning down, I'd be on the first plane back here," said Leigh, a longtime outspoken critic of Forte and the CSU management structure.

While Drake is offline for an indefinite period of time, CSU's other plants -- Ray Nixon, Front Range, and Birdsall -- will be able to generate enough power to keep electricity running for the city, according to John Romero, Chief of Energy Services.  "Right now, it looks like power generation from the other facilities will be able to certainly meet all the needs of our customers," Romero said.  However, peak demand for electricity happens June through August.  If the three remaining plants can't provide enough energy, it may have to be purchased off the grid at a steep cost to the utility, possibly impacting customers' rates.  "As we can get inside the building ans assess what damage is there, we can further determine if we need to buy power for an extended period of time," Romero said.

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