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Explosion may prompt safety checks of LI plants

Long Island's newest power plant, the Caithness Long Island Energy Center in Yaphank, is run with the same technology, according to energy experts, as the under-construction Connecticut plant where an explosion Sunday killed at least five people.

The natural gas explosion at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown, Conn., will probably prompt safety reviews at Caithness and other plants across the country where "combined cycle gas turbine" technology is used, said Matthew Cordaro, a former energy company executive and dean of Dowling College's business school.

"This may draw some more attention to safety issues," Cordaro said. "In that sense there could be a positive outcome from this tragedy."

A spokesman for Caithness, Don Miller, did not return messages left on his cell phone. A message left at Caithness' Manhattan office went unreturned.

The 350-megawatt Caithness plant began supplying the Long Island Power Authority in August after five years of construction and lawsuits. Much of its equipment was supplied by Siemens, which is also working on the 620-megawatt Connecticut plant.

The $1.6-billion Caithness project was lauded by supporters as being environmentally friendly. With combined cycle technology, the burning of natural gas powers one turbine and then heat from that process - normally lost in less-efficient power plants - is used to turn a second turbine.

Such plants convert about three-fifths of the fuel they use into electric power. The older plant in Northport, which burns natural gas and oil, and one in Port Jefferson, which burns natural gas, are half as efficient or worse and produce more pollution. No other Long Island power plant is combined cycle.

Caithness opponents focused on the high cost of the plant, its location near residential neighborhoods and whether the region had a need for more power capacity. Critics also noted that the plant, while more efficient than others, would still produce huge amounts of pollutants.

Safety, however, "was not one of the topics of more noteworthy concern," Cordaro said.

John McConnell, a retired teacher from Yaphank who was a plaintiff in unsuccessful lawsuits trying to stop Caithness, said the Connecticut explosion heightened his worries of an accident. "Our safety is a big concern now."

Preliminary reports said Sunday's explosion may have occurred while workers were purging pipes of natural gas. Cordaro said that process happens at all natural gas facilities, not just combined cycle plants.

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