Xcel Goes to Trial Over 5 Worker Deaths

The trial, which started Tuesday and relates to the 2007 deaths of five workers at a hydroelectric plant in Colorado, marks a rare instance when federal prosecutors have brought criminal charges against a company.

Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, Inc., went to trial Tuesday in Denver in connection with the 2007 deaths of five workers at a Colorado hydroelectric plant.

The trial marks a rare instance when federal prosecutors have brought criminal charges against a company.

Four years ago, five men-Gary Foster, Don DeJaynes, Dupree Holt, Anthony Aguirre, and James St. Peters-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.

Following the incident, Xcel and Public Service Company of Colorado were each charged with five counts of violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. According to The Denver Post, both companies could have to pay fines of up to $500,000 for each of the counts against them.

The two companies 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 200-page 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.

Cliff Stricklin, an attorney who is representing Xcel in the trial, could not be reached for comment-and neither could an Xcel representative. But Stricklin said in August 2010 that when he cross-examined a lead U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigator in court, the investigator acknowledged an “identified gap” in OSHA's regulatory standards-which could be responsible for the 2007 fire.

Following the fire, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board did recommend that OSHA strengthen its regulations to prohibit entry in potentially dangerous atmospheres.

But Don Holmstrom, director of the board's western regional office of investigations, said at an August 2010 press conference that “the lack of such a rule did not absolve Xcel or RPI of the responsibility to have done a hazard analysis, which in the view of the investigation team would have clearly showed that there was no way to work safely in an environment in which this much flammable solvent was brought in to a confined space.”

The Denver Post reported that the case could go through June, and more than 60 witnesses are likely to be called to testify.