Indictments issued for OSHA violations that caused five deaths from fire

September 7, 2009

Xcel Energy, Inc., Public Service Company of Colorado, RPI Coating, Inc., and two men have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Denver 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 August 27, 2009, by U.S. Attorney David Gaouette and OSHA Regional Administrator Greg Baxter.

According to the indictment, on Oct. 2, 2007, five men employed by RPI Coating, Inc., died at the Cabin Creek Hydro Plant. 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 allegedly 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 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. At 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 Santa 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, and RPI vice president and project supervisor James Thompson, of West Canyon Lake, allegedly 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 allegedly 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 Sept. 4, 2007, through Oct. 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 Oct. 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.

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-degree incline section of penstock. Several RPI Coating employees located on the other side of the fire escaped the penstock and survived.

“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 in prison, 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, and 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.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

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