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Hayward and state butt heads on reopening power plant before explosion investigation concludes

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On May 27, hot chunks of twisted metal shot up hundreds of feet into the Hayward sky when a steam turbine engine exploded at the Russell City Energy Center power plant. People nearby were forced to evacuate as dozens of firefighters battled back jutting flames of burning oil and hazmat crews worked to contain runoff as steam and smoke billowed out from the four-story structure. 

The incident report found that metal debris, some as heavy as 50 pounds, was found up to 1,200 feet away, with one man describing a piece that crashed through a homeless shelter trailer roof, where it proceeded to melt the carpet.  

Thankfully, nobody was injured in the disaster, but the possibility and fear was very real. The incident caused an estimated $100 million in damage, which the city vowed to seek compensation for. 

The Russell City Energy Center in Hayward, Calif. was the site of a disastrous explosion on May 27, 2021.

Calpine, the plant owner, and the California Energy Commission are running ongoing parallel investigations. However, before investigations reach conclusions, the CEC Thursday granted Calpine approval to reopen the Russell City Energy Center. The state decision comes as a “disappointment” to city officials who have loudly opposed the plant’s reopening until more is known about how and why the explosion took place.

Hayward officials formally objected Monday to the commission’s ruling in a press release in which they also cited findings of a failed March 2019 safety audit, “which among other things found leaking lubrication oil on the steam turbine that would explode two years and two months later.” It was also discovered that Calpine failed to coordinate joint emergency drills with the Hayward Fire Department, another direction stemming from the seemingly ignored 2019 safety audit.

The CEC’s decision came bundled with acknowledgement that the plant requires greater oversight and transparency, but the promise is a little too loose for city officials to stomach.

In the press release, Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday said:  

“At the same time, our objections to restarting the plant are unchanged, and we are very disappointed with the decision.”

The RCEC facility is a “combined-cycle power plant comprised of two gas turbines and a steam turbine” that “generates electricity from natural gas and generally is relied upon… during periods of peak demand when temperatures are highest.” The facility will restart operation at half capacity with just use of gas turbines — the city points out that doing so will double the amount of carbon emissions per unit of energy produced.

The Hayward City Council will discuss the plant’s reopening at its Tuesday 7 p.m. meeting that can be viewed on Zoom, YouTube, Comcast Channel 15 or through the city’s website stream.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.

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