Two companies and two executives accused in the deaths of five workers in a 2007 fire inside a tunnel at a Colorado hydroelectric plant have been indicted on federal charges. Xcel Energy, RPI Coating Inc. and two RPI executives face criminal charges in the deaths in a federal indictment that alleges they knew about the danger and did nothing about it. The 17-page indictment, made public Friday, accuses RPI of trying to cover up shortfalls by altering, destroying, or concealing the cameras, journals and cell phones of two of the dead workers.
Four people survived the fire at the Xcel Cabin Creek hydroelectric plant in Georgetown, Colo., about 35 miles west of Denver. All five of the workers killed were from California and worked for Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based RPI.
On Oct. 2, workers bringing a solvent into the tunnel to clean a sprayer noticed the solvent had vaporized into the air, “causing employees to suffer irritation and complain to their managers.”
Later, vapor from the solvent ignited. Workers deep inside the tunnel survived the initial fire and were in radio contact with rescuers as crews tried lowering air tanks to them. The workers were overcome by smoke and fumes and died from asphyxiation.
Earlier problems, including multiple evacuations due to high levels of carbon monoxide and damage to electrical equipment, made the companies and RPI executives aware that employees faced serious health and safety hazards working in the tunnel, the indictment said.
In March 2008, OSHA proposed $845,100 in penalties against RPI and $189,900 against Xcel, saying the “catastrophe could have been avoided.”
Five of the charges involve the violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations by Xcel, RPI and RPI executives Philippe Goutagny and James Thompson.
RPI faces one count of obstruction for allegedly altering, destroying and concealing records, documents and others items belonging to a surviving worker and two deceased workers, the indictment said.
The companies failed to get a permit for the work or assess the tunnel for danger, according to the indictment. Local fire authorities had asked permission to conduct training in the tunnel before the work began, but the companies never followed up.
Xcel and its subsidiary, Public Service Co. of Colorado, and RPI, each face fines of up to $2.5 million and restitution if convicted of the OSHA violations, while Goutagny and Thompson individually face 2 1/2 years in prison and a fine of up to $1.25 million. RPI faces a $500,000 fine for the obstruction charge.