Xcel, RPI Coating, Execs Indicted In Tunnel Deaths

Grand Jury Indicts Companies, Execs On Federal Charges

Xcel Energy, its contractor, and two executives have been indicted on federal charges in the deaths of five workers killed during a fire inside a tunnel at a hydroelectric plant in Georgetown.

The workers died on Oct. 2, 2007 at Xcel Energy's Cabin Creek plant, located about 35 miles west of Denver in Clear Creek County.

A grand jury indictment made public Friday accuses Xcel, RPI Coating Inc. and two RPI executives of violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, which resulted in the fire and the failure to rescue the men.

The grand jury indicted the companies and executives on Thursday, saying they knew there were lapses in equipment and safety concerns surrounding the project but employed the workers anyway.

Xcel Energy denies any criminal wrongdoing.

"The general public is familiar with the legal system, and people understand that accidents are treated differently from criminal acts. This was an accident -- a tragic accident. We reject any attempt to characterize the Cabin Creek events in any other way, and we look forward to the opportunity to present our case," said Michael Connelly, an attorney for Xcel Energy.

The five victims worked for RPI Coatings, which had contracted with Xcel to recoat the tunnel walls.

Larry S. Pozner, an attorney for Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based RPI Coatings, said, "Our men were well qualified to do this work. We disagree with the prosecution's position that this was a willful crime. This was an accident, an incredible tragedy."

The families of the men killed said the statement doesn't cut it.

"What do you expect them to say? You think, ' Yeah, it's our fault?'" said James Aguirre. His stepson Gary Foster died at Cabin Creek. He had worked for RPI for nearly 20 years.

"Let's face it. There was a mistake made, people died and they're trying to get out of it the cheapest way they can. That's automatic," Aguirre said.

The five men were working in a large, drained water pipe, called a penstock, that guides water downhill to a turbine that is attached to an electrical generator that produces electricity. They were repairing lining in the penstock, replacing it with a new epoxy liner that protects the steel tunnel from water.

However, when one of the liners was sprayed, it ignited a chemical solvent vapor, starting a fire. There was only one viable exit in the penstock, located at the lower end, but the fire blocked it.

The men retreated up the penstock, but were unable to get past the 55 degrees incline section. The men survived inside the penstock for about one hour before dying from asphyxiation due to inhalation of carbon monoxide produced by the fire.

Several RPI Coating employees located on the other side of the fire escaped the penstock and lived.

The grand jury found that during the relining project, several incidents occurred that posed health and safety hazards to employees.

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

The indictment said that all defendants, including RPI owner and president Philippe Goutagny, of Santa Ana, Calif., and RPI vice president and project supervisor James Thompson, of West Canyon Lake, Calif., were aware that the relining project posed serious health and safety hazards to their employees working inside the penstock.

The indictment alleges that the defendants knew about the incidents that had posed health and safety hazards to employees working inside the penstock, but nonetheless treated the penstock as a non-permit-required confined space during the relining project.

According to OSHA, the penstock was a confined space that required a permit and was subject to OSHA’s general industry confined space regulation.

The indictment also alleges that the defendants failed to conduct life safety rescue drills.

RPI is also facing a count of obstruction. The grand jury found that the company knowingly altered, destroyed or concealed the victims' cameras, journals and cell phones with the intent to impede or influence government investigators.

In a statement released Friday, Xcel's president and chief executive officer, Tim Taylor, said, "We provide natural gas and electric service that is vital to our customers and communities, and there are inherent risks in some of the jobs that our employees and contractors perform. Knowing that, we continually look for ways to improve our processes and to keep everyone safe on the job."

Pozner said, "These five men were not just our employees they were our friends. These men had been employed by RPI for years, some for nearly two decades. We mourn their passing now and forever. Industrial painting is a very technical field. Our employees are well trained and take great pride in their abilities and in our profession. It is not uncommon for fathers to bring their children into our company. That was the case on this project, where fathers and sons worked side by side."

Xcel Energy, Inc. and RPI Coating, Inc. are each charged with five counts of violating OSHA regulation and causing death, which is punishable by a possible fine of $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 as much as six months imprisonment, and a fine of up to $250,000 for each count.

The defendants will have to appear in U.S. District Court in Denver on Sept. 22.

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.

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