Critics of a controversial report commissioned by the Southeast Alaska Power Agency have been voicing their concerns. The document offers suggestions for streamlining operations and administration at two publicly-owned hydro-electric power plants at Swan Lake and Tyee Lake.
About half a dozen residents attended a workshop session held at the Wrangell City Hall Monday night. Officials with Wrangell, Petersburg, SEAPA, Thomas Bay Power Authority and Ketchikan Public Utility discussed the operations and maintenance report produced by D Hittle and Associates. According to an agreement with SEAPA, KPU operates the Swan Lake power plant and TBPA operates the Tyee Lake facility.
But the report calls for a single contractor for both facilities. The document also points out inconsistencies in employee training and budgeting. It also lists concerns about an overlap of people who serve on the boards for SEAPA, Thomas Bay and KPU, who also work in management for the utilities.
According to the report, there are currently 16 full-time equivalent positions split between the two plants. The suggested change would have two full-time operators at each plant and one roving operator who would work at both facilities. At times, there may only be one operator or “caretaker” at a facility.
SEAPA CEO Trey Acteson said moving forward with a single operator would save money in the long-term for the agency. The report estimated an annual savings of roughly $460,000 if SEAPA takes over the main operations and maintenance. Acteson said maneuvering into a single contract also would give SEAPA more control over its two plants.
“We are responsible, we report to FERC. We’re ultimately responsible for both of the projects, not the O&M contractor. It’s SEAPA. And from a risk-management perspective, I have no control over who’s operating the plant. I have no control over skill-diversification within the plants. How do I know they even have somebody qualified there to do the task they need to do? I don’t, and I have no control over that,” he said.
Assembly member James Stough said a single-operator contract would have a big impact on the economies of all the communities.
“You go to single operator we’re losing $550,000 in wages in this community. We’re losing the groceries, the goodies and the rest of that stuff. And you’re going to move personnel back and forth and around. In our communities, Petersburg, Wrangell, employment means a big thing,” he said.
He said he wants to keep the facilities at “the status quo.” Stough said the people who currently work at the plants are doing a good job and should not be taken out of those positions.
Andy Donato is the Senior Electric Systems Engineer with KPU. He said the suggestions in the report will leave the facilities ill-prepared for major service disruptions.
“The problem we have with the SEAPA organization is they’re small. I think their brilliant. I think they’re gifted. But to sit and throw the baby out with the bath water, and them think that they’re going to do this in a year’s time and develop the plan I think it’s not a good one,” he said.
Donato also expressed his concerns about having a sole operator at a facility on weekends. He said there are many tasks at the plants that require more than one person.
The report’s author, John Heberling, said having a single operator is a common practice in the industry.
“The project in Kodiak operates that way. They normally will have three guys out at the site four days a week. And then for the remaining three days of the week, there’s just one of them that remains and the site and the others go home to Kodiak for that period of time,” he said.
But there were questions about whether or not that practice actually met OSHA requirements. Wrangell resident Kip Valvoda mentioned that in the case of an emergency, a single-operator would not be allowed to enter a confined space without another worker to supervise. He said he learned that requirement from his years of experience as an electrician.
Mick Nicholls is a foreman at the Tyee plant. He said he isn’t comfortable with only one worker at either plant. Nicholls also is concerned about how quickly the process is going.
“I think you’ll find a lot of reluctance for one person at the plant. It’s just something that absolutely would have to be worked through. My questions mostly are: are we pulling the trigger too soon? Did we look at this well enough to be able to pull the trigger and say we’re going to cancel the O&M contractors? I think the D Hittle report leaves a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.
Another issue that could come up if the proposed changes are approved by the SEAPA board deals with the Public Employees Retirement System. Wrangell Mayor Don McConachie said even after a person has been laid off, the community must still pay into the PER System. He said that’s because the retirement fund is so far in the red.
“So, whether you have that employee or whether you don’t, you still have to pay. That is a tremendous impact on these communities if people were to leave and we didn’t have them. We would still have to pay for them,” he said.
Acteson said that is something the agency has been and will continue to look into. But he stressed nothing is set in stone and no changes have been made. Acteson said his focus is on providing reliable, low-cost energy and ensuring the facilities are operating at their best. The SEAPA board meets again Dec. 13 and will likely discuss the report. The members will have the final say on how to move forward.
The Wrangell Borough Assembly plans to discuss the issue during its Nov. 27 meeting. McConachie said they will offer guidance to their SEAPA board members as well.