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Workers at the Martin Drake Power Plant install scrubbers on Unit 6, center and Unit 7, right, in March 2015.

A small fire that broke out Tuesday at the Martin Drake Power Plant could give Colorado Springs City Council members another incentive to shut down the coal-fired, downtown power plant sooner than planned, said council President Richard Skorman.

No one was injured in the fire beneath Turbine 7, but about 20 to 40 employees were working nearby when it broke out, said Aram Benyamin, Utilities CEO. About 70 firefighters responded and extinguished it within minutes.

“We were in the process of spinning up Unit 6 after being offline for planned maintenance,” said Utilities spokesman Steve Berry. “We had a crew there working on Unit 6 and getting that turned back on. As we we were doing that, the team noticed an oil fire on Unit 7.”

The Fire Department has not released the cause of the fire, and Berry said the cost of the damage it caused also has not been determined. The unit will have to be taken apart and examined before Utilities can give an estimate, he said.

But, Skorman said the cost of repairs is a lesser concern than the potential for the plant causing a “catastrophe.”

“You put a huge combustible power-making factory in the middle of a population area ... it wouldn’t be anybody’s choice to do (build) it today and we need to really consider that for the future,” Skorman said.

“It makes me want to push the (closure) date up,” he said.

Martin Drake Power Plant was set to be decommissioned no later than 2035, but local activists have called for an earlier closure. Benyamin said last year that he would like to shutter Unit 6 as early as possible. The remaining Unit 7 could be shut down as early as 2024, he said.

The power plant provides about a quarter of the community’s power year-round, according to Utilities.

Councilman Andy Pico disagreed with Skorman that the plant’s closure should be hastened because of the fire, citing the potential for higher electric rates.

“The alternatives to the Drake plant are more costly and will negatively impact the pocketbooks of everyone to replace the plant,” Pico said in an email.

“To shut down the plant earlier will negatively impact everyone. The lower income and economically disadvantaged will be hurt the worst as rates will necessarily rise.”

Berry commended firefighters for their quick response Tuesday and for their partnership in training for emergencies with Utilities workers.

“(The Utilities workers) were right there and were able to extinguish a lot of the flames on Deck 7 before it got really bad. … If it wasn’t for their quick response there was a likelihood of more damage.”

Unit 6, which has been shut down for about four months, came back online Tuesday. Utilities estimates Unit 7 will be offline until the end of September, Berry said.

Tuesday’s small fire was the second at the power plant since 2014, when a four-alarm blaze ripped through the plant on May 5, causing major damage to Martin Drake’s infrastructure.

That fire prompted the evacuation of 62 employees and voluntary evacuation notices were sent to people within three blocks of the plant. One contract employee was treated for minor injuries, and about 22,000 customers briefly lost power.

The plant didn’t become fully operational until 10 months later, after $20 million worth of repairs were made.

Three boilers had been badly damaged after lubricating oil hit hot steam pipes, and the free-flowing oil continued to feed the blaze, increasing its size and severity, an investigation determined.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration isn’t likely to investigate Tuesday’s fire, said Berry, because worker safety does not appear to be an issue.

Multimedia Journalist

Liz is a multimedia journalist with a specific interest in environment and outdoor recreation. She watches way too much Star Trek and is working toward her rescue scuba divers certification. Liz joined the Gazette staff in 2019.

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