Two Westar Energy employees die; Kansas' biggest power plant shut down

Jeffrey Energy Center, the state's largest power plant, where two employees died Sunday in a steam accident.
Jeffrey Energy Center, the state's largest power plant, where two employees died Sunday in a steam accident. Westar Energy photo

Two Westar Energy employees have died from steam burns suffered in an equipment failure at the Jeffrey Energy Center in St. Mary's, the company announced Monday.

The entire coal-fired generating plant — the state's largest source of electric power — has been shut down pending an investigation into the accident to ensure the safety of other employees, a company spokeswoman said.

The company identified the workers who were killed as operations supervisors Craig Burchett, of Overbrook, and Jesse Henson, of Manhattan.

The two suffered severe burns when a steam safety valve apparently failed and filled the area they were in with hot pressurized steam. The accident occurred about 11:30 a.m. Sunday.

The injured workers were transported by helicopter ambulance to the University of Kansas Medical Center. Both died overnight Sunday, Westar announced.

"We've got a team that's investigating to understand the full circumstances," spokeswoman Gina Penzig said. "Our focus is on the families and our co-workers out at the plant making sure everybody has the support they need."

The power plant burns coal to boil water and uses the resulting high-pressure steam to turn turbines that generate electricity. Penzig said the two men were in an area where the steam passes between the boilers and the turbine room.

The accident took place in Unit 3 at the plant, the newest of its three generating units, which came on line in 1983.

All three units at the plant have been shut down for the safety investigation, Penzig said.

The plant began producing energy in 1978 and these are the first fatal accidents there, Penzig said.

The last Westar employee to die in an industrial accident was a field employee who suffered fatal burns working on underground power equipment in 2002, she said.

Jeffrey Energy Center is the state's biggest power plant, rated at 2,178 megawatts.

That represents slightly more than a fourth of Westar's overall generating capacity of 7,800 megawatts and is almost twice the capacity of Westar's Wolf Creek nuclear power plant.

Penzig said the company will rely more on its other generating assets and buy power from other utilities in the Southwest Power Pool until Jeffrey can be safely brought back on-line.

No brownouts or other service interruption is expected, she said.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas