State regulators seek documentation about SJGS cooling tower collapse, future impacts

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission voted unanimously July 14 to formally seek more information about the cause of and potential impacts from a cooling tower collapse on June 30 that shut down Unit 1 of the San Juan Generating Station near Waterflow.

Commissioners also urged Public Service Company of New Mexico's management to trust commissioners to keep the company's confidential information confidential, and to give them the information they need to do their jobs.

Commission Chair Steve Fischmann said he decided to support District 4 Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar's call for formal documentation of the incident.

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While he didn't start the meeting believing that creating a docket was necessary, Fischmann said he changed his mind because it was a serious thing to have a "major baseload component of our power system go down, and we were in the dark about it."

PNM's representatives told commissioners they had initially sought to keep the collapse quiet due to concerns that traders would use knowledge of the utility's operational weaknesses to raise power purchase costs on the open market and price gouge the utility.

The utility was under no legal responsibility to report the incident as the flow of power was met and no outages happened. PNM officials noted to the commissioners that they are briefed on some things, and that a PRC staffer was told some details of this event early on.

PNM sent Executive Director of Regulatory Policy Mark Fenton and Senior Vice President, Public Policy Ron Darnell to talk to the commissioners about the basics of the collapse.

They told the commission they don't know why the wooden structure failed but investigators are studying that.

"Obviously, this is the last thing the company wanted to happen," Darnell said, adding that hours before the collapse the structure was determined to be structurally sound during a visual inspection.

Work on to swap out Unit 1 tower

Darnell told the commission debris from the tower is being studied as the cause of the structure's failure is sought. 

The utility will rent a cooling tower so Unit 1 can go back online. Meanwhile the company has purchased power to replace what Unit 1 would have generated. It did not present a timeline for completion.

Unit 4 was under a planned shut down at the time of the collapse and was not damaged during the event.

Darnell was upbraided by Becenti-Aguilar for not having information about the history of and procedures for routine safety drills at the plant. She was also critical of community outreach efforts over the years by PNM Resources Chairman, President and CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn. 

The generating station is in Becenti-Aguilar's district, which covers much of Northwest New Mexico, including Farmington, Gallup and parts of the Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo, according to a map on the PRC website.

PRC Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar

"We haven't heard from her since the decision was made to close the San Juan Generating Station," Becenti-Aguilar said.

Some commissioners requested greater transparency from PNM when operational problems that may affect the power supply and rates paid by customers occur, and promised to use discretion.

Said District 5 Commissioner Fischmann, "there's a lot of things we have to keep our mouths shut about."

District 3 Commissioner Joseph Maestas said it didn't serve PNM's best interests to stay silent about – and have imaginations running wild about – what went on with the tower collapse. He urged PNM to "revisit your priorities."

"I see this incident a much more significant than a power outage in a commissioner's district," he said, and worthy of a briefing. "If it has to be in confidence, we can do that."

PNM's Fenton told commissioners their message was received.

Contact John R. Moses at 505-564-4624, or via email at jmoses@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e