Jury Acquits Xcel in Trial Over Worker Deaths

The Minneapolis-based utility and its Colorado subsidiary were reportedly acquitted of criminal charges related to the deaths of five workers at a Colorado hydroelectric plant.

Xcel Energy, Inc., recently went to trial in Denver in connection with the 2007 deaths of five workers at a Colorado hydroelectric plant-marking a rare instance when federal prosecutors have brought criminal charges against a company.

Minneapolis-based Xcel was acquitted of those criminal charges on Tuesday, according to a report by the Associated Press.

A jury in Denver's U.S. District Court reportedly spent nearly three days in deliberations prior to acquitting Xcel and its subsidiary, Public Service Company of Colorado, of five counts of violating federal safety regulations.

If convicted, Xcel and its subsidiary reportedly could have faced fines of up to $2.5 million.

At the center of the case were five workers-Gary Foster, Don DeJaynes, Dupree Holt, Anthony Aguirre, and James St. Peters-who died at the Cabin Creek hydroelectric plant near Georgetown, Colorado.

According to an indictment filed in August 2009, the men were working inside a large, drained water pipe called a penstock when a fire erupted. The fire blocked the only escape route, and the pipe was too steep to allow them to climb away from the fire. The men died from asphyxiation after inhaling carbon monoxide produced by the fire.

Xcel had contracted with Santa Fe Springs, California-based RPI Coating, Inc., to perform maintenance work on the drained water pipe's lining system.

After the fire, a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report claimed that Xcel and RPI ignored worker safety at the plant. The report faulted Xcel for selecting RPI even though it had the lowest possible safety rating and for failing to plan and train for hazardous work-including bringing flammable liquids into a confined space.

Xcel contended that it followed the law and that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should clarify its rules.