SEATTLE - Inside a South Seattle warehouse, giant wooden crates contain an expensive mistake made by Washington State Ferries (WSF). Multi-million-dollar, high-powered generators that will never be used are sitting inside.
They were supposed to be installed on the ferries Kaleetan and Yakima. The new equipment would allow the boats to propel through the water using two engines instead of four. They were purchased to help save money on fuel costs.
Ferry design engineers conducted studies before ordering the new generators but they made a big mistake. They didn't do enough testing to realize the equipment would be too powerful to use on the boats. Connector cables on the two ferries can't handle generators that powerful. If installed they could cause an electrical explosion called an "arc flash." An arc flash is a short circuit through air that flashes over from one exposed live conductor to another conductor or to ground. There are studies estimating arc explosions cause one to two deaths per day in the U.S.
The KING 5 Investigators obtained an internal state memo which says the generators would create a "possible life-threatening incident… in locations where vessel personnel are likely to be present."
Without knowing about the potential danger, in 2006 WSF ordered nine generators from the Texas company TECO-Westinghouse.
So far the state has paid $1 million for four of the nine. When problems cropped up, the state threw more money at the project.
In 2007, a million dollars was spent on a design change.
Last year, they spent $100,000 on consultants hired to find ways to fix the mistake.
So far the cost to taxpayers is $2.1 million. That number could grow to millions more to pay TECO-Westinghouse for work already performed.
In 2008, ferry engineers began to suspect the generators were too powerful to be used. The state hired the engineering firm Siemens Energy and Automation to conduct an analysis.
In February 2009, Siemens reported to WSF that, indeed, the switchgear on the boats could not handle that powerful of a generator.
State ferries didn’t scrap the project just yet. They hired another consultant - the Seattle-based naval architectural firm Guido Perla and Associates - to look for ways to allow the generators to interface safely with the cable connectors.
On April 28, 2010, Guido Perla reported to the ferry system that nothing could be done: "There is no viable, economically feasible device or technology that can safely (fix the problem)," wrote Perla engineers.
It wasn’t until three month later, in July, that state ferries officially told TECO-Westinghouse to pull the plug and stop all production.
Ferries Director of Vessel Maintenance Paul Brodeur signed off on the original order. He declined our requests for an interview.
KING-TV uncovered something else that’s troubling. The generators that are currently on the Kaleetan and the Yakima, and have been for ten years, have the same potential to cause an electrical explosion. Siemens Energy and Automation discovered and reported this safety concern to WSF a year-and-a-half ago.
Ferry officials tell us they're concerned but say nothing like that has ever happened and that their safety record is stellar. They also say that after a year-and-a-half, they're still working on a plan to solve the problem.
The Coast Guard tells KING 5 that just today WSF officials alerted them to the potential hazard and that they will be working with ferry engineers to mitigate the situation.
As for the unusable generators, four remain in boxes in a Seattle warehouse. The other five are at TECO-Westinghouse, nearly completed. It’s unclear how much the state will end up paying the manufacturer. The five generators at TECO-Westinghouse will remain in Texas. They are preparing to box them up and put them in a storage facility there until WSF decides what to do with the unusable equipment.
Statement to KING-TV from Assistant Secretary for Washington State Ferries David Moseley
Washington State Ferries has an unparalleled safety record. I would never put our passengers or employees at risk; safety is the number one priority of the organization. In the nearly 60 years that we have operated the ferry system, our safety record is equal to or exceeds any other ferry system in the world. Our 23 million annual passengers can count on our state ferries to deliver them safely to and from their destinations.
We have excellent engine room staff responsible for operations on the Super class vessels. There are no reports concerning any safety issues regarding the propulsion generators on the Kaleetan and Yakima.
Furthermore, the potential for this issue does not exist on any other vessels in the fleet because the nature of the power and/or the configurations of the propulsion plants on other vessels are different.
In 2007, Secretary Hammond demonstrated the department's willingness to put safety first when she withdrew the Steel Electrics from service when there was an issue of concern. Any suggestion that the ferry system would ever compromise the safety of our passengers or employees is unfounded as demonstrated by our record and actions.