Xcel's 2007 fatal Cabin Creek draws grim animation, angry rebuke from safety board

Tomorrow, members of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are scheduled to travel to Denver to talk about safety recommendations prompted by the investigation into a 2007 accident at Xcel Energy's Cabin Creek hydroelectric plant, which cost five workers their lives.

And they'll have a powerful audio-visual aid -- an animation of the workers' final moments, teased in the video below.

Xcel went to court to block the release of the safety board's report until after a criminal trial over the deaths. When that didn't work, the company leaked a draft document to the Denver Post and 9News. This attempt to control the bad news clearly frosted CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, whose letter to Xcel chairman Richard C. Kelly is written in a tone that suggests his underlying frustration.

Here's a choice excerpt, which slyly compares Xcel to Massey Energy, owner of West Virginia's Big Branch Mine, where dozens of miners died, and British Petroleum, which isn't exactly the favorite firm of the average Louisianan:

Legal Action to Block Publication of Report

Instead of supplying the requested comments to help conclude the investigation, Xcel took the unprecedented step of going to federal court to block the publication of the CSB report last spring. Ultimately, the presiding judge squarely rejected Xcel's effort to prohibit publication of the CSB's findings and recommendations:

Based on the evidence presented at the June 24, 2010 hearing, the arguments, and the applicable law, I find Defendants' arguments to be without merit. Moreover, the Defendants cite no authority in support of their request that I bar the issuance of the CSB's final Cabin Creek report. First, I find the CSB acted as an independent federal agency in conducting its investigation and drafting its report as required by 42 U.S.C. §7412(r)(6)(A)-(S). There is no evidence whatsoever that the CSB acted in concert with the prosecution in investigating this accident or intentionally delayed the issuance of its report.

While the CSB's position was supported by a federal district judge, Xcel's legal action delayed completion of the CSB report for several months, and diverted CSB resources from other ongoing investigations. Despite the clear findings to the contrary in the judge's ruling, Xcel representatives have continued to make frivolous claims that the CSB has delayed release of its report to prejudice Xcel in the federal criminal prosecution in which the company is a defendant.

Unauthorized Disclosure of Partial Draft Report

Last week, an Xcel attorney, in clear violation of direct instructions contained in the CSB cover letter, provided an incomplete preliminary draft of the CSB report to the media on the eve of the Board's completion of its work. The report released by the attorney was the one the CSB had provided for quality control review, under clear conditions of confidentiality (as noted above). This last Xcel maneuver caused yet further delays in the process of finalizing and issuing the Board's report. Moreover, the release of an incomplete and draft version of the report, which did not include the Board's recommendations, has now also created a risk that Xcel's Directors and shareholders will draw incorrect conclusions about the incident at Cabin Creek, and what Xcel must do to prevent similar incidents in the future.

In light of this disappointing pattern of corporate conduct, I am writing you directly to ensure that you are personally aware of the actions taken by Xcel to delay the CSB investigation, block publication of the CSB final report, and distort the conclusions of the investigation by releasing an unauthorized draft copy of the CSB report. The CSB will issue a formal recommendation that Xcel shareholders be directly notified by management of the significant findings and recommendations of the CSB report, and of the actions Xcel management intends to take to implement needed safety improvements. In the wake of the corporate responsibility concerns raised by the Big Branch Mine accident in West Virginia and the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I strongly urge Xcel to renew its focus on safety and to swiftly implement the CSB's recommendations.

Look below to see the accident animation, presented along with critical remarks from expert commentators:

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts