Xcel Energy, others accused of OSHA violations in incident that killed five

In October 2007, five employees of RPI Coating Inc. were killed by carbon monoxide generated by a fire at the Cabin Creek Hydro Plant outside Georgetown that's operated by Xcel Energy and Public Service Company of Colorado. Now, a federal grand jury has issued indictments against RPI, Xcel, Public Service and two men for violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules -- actions that may well have contributed to these deaths.

It's a case as complicated as it is tragic. Get more details by reading the indictment (accessible by clicking here) and checking out a synopsis issued by the U.S. Justice Department, on view after the jump.


DENVER -- Xcel Energy, Inc., Public Service Company of Colorado, RPI Coating, Inc., and two men have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Denver late yesterday on charges that the defendants violated Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace safety and health rules and regulations that resulted in the death of five men at the Cabin Creek Hydro Plant, near Georgetown, Colorado. The indictment was announced today by United States Attorney David Gaouette and OSHA Regional Administrator Greg Baxter. The defendants will receive summons in U.S. District Court in Denver on September 22, 2009 at 1:30 p.m.

According to the indictment, the Grand Jury charges that on October 2, 2007, five men employed by RPI Coating, Inc., died at the Cabin Creek Hydro Plant, near Georgetown, Colorado, in Clear Creek County. Xcel Energy and Public Service Company of Colorado operate the hydro-electric plant. The deceased men were working inside a large, drained water pipe called a penstock, when the fire erupted. Their escape from the penstock was blocked by the fire. They survived inside the penstock for about one hour before dying from asphyxiation due to inhalation of carbon monoxide produced by the fire. The deaths were caused by violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's workplace safety and health regulations, which resulted in the fire and the failure to rescue the men.

The Cabin Creek Hydro Plant is located on Guanella Pass Road at about 10,000 feet elevation. It is a pumped storage electric power generation plant. Water is stored in an upper reservoir at about 11,000 feet elevation. During the day that water flows downhill through the penstock to turbines that generate electricity, and then into a lower reservoir at about 10,000 feet elevation. During the night the water is pumped back up through the penstock to the upper reservoir. The steel section of the penstock had a lining to protect the steel from the water. By 2007, the lining of the steel section of the penstock had reached the end of its useful life. Thus, Xcel and Public Service initiated the Cabin Creek relining project, which involved maintenance of the penstock's lining system by removing the old liner and replacing it with a new epoxy liner.

In 2007, Xcel Energy and Public Service Company of Colorado contracted with RPI Coating, Inc., to perform the maintenance work. RPI Coating is a specialty coatings application company headquartered in Sante Fe Springs, California. The penstock was a permit-required confined space subject to OSHA's general industry confined space regulation. All defendants, including RPI owner and president Philippe Goutagny, of Santa Anna, California, and RPI vice president and project supervisor James Thompson, of West Canyon Lake, California, were aware that the relining project posed serious health and safety hazards to their employees working inside the penstock.

Additionally, during the penstock relining project, several incidents occurred that posed health and safety hazards to employees working inside the penstock. The indictment alleges that the defendants knew about the incidents, but nonetheless treated the penstock as a non-permit-required confined space during the relining project. The indictment also alleges that the defendants failed to conduct life safety rescue drills.

From about September 4, 2007 through October 2, 2007, RPI Coating employees set up their equipment at the Cabin Creek Hydro Plant, blasting the old lining system from the steel pipe section and then applying the new epoxy liner, all under the supervision of Xcel Energy and Public Service Company. On October 2, 2007, an employee of Xcel Energy entered the penstock early in the morning to perform welding repairs. Thereafter, RPI Coating employees began spraying the new epoxy liner onto the steel pipe section. They had methyl ethyl ketone, a common industrial solvent also known as MEK, inside the penstock to clean their application equipment. They encountered difficulties with the application equipment, and they brought additional MEK into the penstock to continue cleaning their application equipment.

On October 2, 2007, the MEK that RPI Coating employees brought into the penstock volatilized into the air in the workspace causing employees to suffer irritation and complain to their managers. An ignition source in the vicinity of the epoxy sprayer ignited the MEK vapor, starting a fire. There was only one viable egress point, which was located at the low end of the penstock. The fire was located between the five men who died and that egress point. The men retreated up the penstock, but were unable to get past the 55 degrees incline section of penstock. Several RPI Coating employees located on the other side of the fire escaped the penstock and lived.

"Following OSHA rules and regulations are critical to the safety of all workers in this country," said U.S. Attorney David Gaouette.

"This catastrophe could have been avoided if the companies had followed their critical safety procedures," said Greg Baxter, OSHA Regional Administrator in Denver. "There should never be such a disregard for the safety of employees."

Xcel Energy, Inc., Public Service Company of Colorado, and RPI Coating, Inc. are each charged with five counts of violating OSHA Regulation and Causing Death, which is punishable by a fine of not more than $500,000 per count.

Philippe Goutagny and James Thompson are also both charged with five counts of violating OSHA Regulation and Causing Death. If convicted, they each face not more than 6 months imprisonment, and a fine of up to $250,000 for each count.

This case was investigated by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Haried.

The charges are only allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.