Defendants Deny Criminal Acts in Colorado Pipe Deaths
OSHA issued about $1 million in fines against two of the companies that were charged in the Aug. 27 indictment, which was announced the following day by U.S. Attorney David Gaouette.
Sept. 22 is the date five defendants -- two individuals and three companies -- have been summoned to appear in a Denver federal courtroom after being indicted Aug. 27 on charges they caused the deaths of five workers by willfully violating OSHA's confined space standards. The men who died -- Anthony Aguirre, Gary Foster, Dupree Holt, Don DeJaynes, and James St. Peters -- were among nine employees of RPI Coating, Inc. who were installing an epoxy liner in a large concrete water pipe at the Cabin Creek Hydro Plant in Colorado when methyl ethyl ketone vapor ignited. Four workers at the end of the pipe below the fire were able to escape, but the five victims died of smoke inhalation because they could not climb the steeply slanted higher end to reach safety. The men had brought MEK into the pipe to clean their equipment, and the defendants should have foreseen its presence inside the pipe could injure and kill the workers, the indictment alleges.
The Denver Post has covered the story throughout. The indictment charges Xcel Energy Inc. and Public Service Company of Colorado, which operate the plant, along with RPI Coating, a Santa Fe Springs, Calif., firm hired to apply the new pipe liner. The two individuals facing criminal charges are Philippe Goutagny, owner and president of RPI Coating, and James Thompson, a vice president and board member of RPI Coating who directed and supervised the maintenance work, according to the indictment. Count six of the indictment charges that RPI Coating "knowingly altered, destroyed, concealed and covered up records, documents, and tangible objects, to wit: Gary Foster's and Don DeJaynes' cameras and journals and Greg Ledbetter's cell phone, with the intent to impede, obstruct, and influence the investigation and proper administration of a matter within the jurisdiction of a department and agency of the United States, to wit: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board."
Xcel Energy and Public Service Company of Colorado face a fine of not more than $500,000 for each of five counts, while RPI Coating faces the same potential fine and a maximum fine of $500,000 for count six. Goutagny and Thompson face a maximum six months' imprisonment and $250,000 fine for each of five counts.
OSHA issued a fine of nearly $190,000 to Xcel and an $845,100 fine to RPI Coating.
Public Service Company of Colorado says the case is not a criminal matter. "We at Public Service Company of Colorado extend our deepest sympathies to the families of those employees of RPI Coatings who perished in the accident, as well as to those who were injured," President and CEO Tim Taylor said in a statement. "Since the accident, we have done what we can to help those families and individuals. Safety has always been a top priority and a core value at Public Service Company of Colorado. We have an extensive Safety organization, made up of experienced safety professionals who work hard to implement our numerous safety training programs and policies. We have a long and strong safety record, but safety is a job that is never done.
"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," Taylor said. "Knowing that, we continually look for ways to improve our processes and to keep everyone safe on the job."
"The general public is familiar with the legal system, and people understand that accidents are treated differently from criminal acts," said Michael Connelly, general counsel for Xcel Energy. "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."