RPI Coating Inc. will pay $1.65 million and accept five years of probation as part of a plea bargain in the deaths of five of its painters trapped underground by fire in 2007.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board
|The painters died of smoke inhalation as rescuers worked to reach them. One prosecutor said there “will always be blood” on RPI’s hands.|
RPI president Philippe Goutagny pleaded guilty Monday (Dec. 19) in U.S. District Court in Denver on behalf of the specialty painting company to five misdemeanor counts of workplace-safety violations resulting in death.
Under the plea agreement, charges against Goutagny and vice president James Thompson were dismissed, as was an obstruction-of-justice charge against the company. Goutagny made no statement at the hearing.
RPI will serve five years of probation and face a fine of up to $2.5 million if the company has another willful safety lapse during that time.
The plea agreement also resolved an ongoing civil lawsuit by the victims' families against RPI.
The five painters—all RPI employees, ages 18 to 52—were trapped Oct. 2, 2007, in an underground penstock at Xcel Energy’s hydroelectric plant near Georgetown, CO, when solvent vapors were accidentally ignited.
The painters had been cleaning spray equipment with solvent-based products after finishing their painting for the day. All succumbed to smoke inhalation as rescuers worked to reach them.
The $1.65 million agreement includes $100,000 to settle fines by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; $200,000 to four injured workers; and $275,000 in attorney fees and costs.
The plea agreement, signaled earlier this month, headed off an impending criminal trial for RPI and the executives.
Xcel and a subsidiary were acquitted of criminal wrongdoing in the disaster after a trial this summer. RPI and its executives were to be tried next.
Xcel, RPI, Goutagny and Thompson were all indicted in August 2009. The indictment said the defendants were aware that the relining project had posed serious health and safety hazards to the employees inside the penstock.
Both OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded that Xcel and RPI shared responsibility for the disaster. OSHA proposed more than $1 million in fines against the two companies, saying the “catastrophe could have been avoided.”
The CSB said Xcel had failed to plan adequately for hazardous work that included taking flammable solvents inside a 4,300-foot tunnel.
Reaction to Monday’s settlement was subdued and, in some quarters, angry.
"Those five had mothers, fathers, brothers and wives,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaime Peña told Chief Judge Wiley Daniel. “There will always be blood on Mr. Goutagny's hands.”
"The families of these deceased individuals will not be able to see them again," Peña said. "And no amount of money . . . will be able to change that."
Liz Foster, the widow of victim Gary Foster, told the Denver Post that she was "highly disappointed" by the agreement and had agreed to it because the other families wanted it.
"I would have given up everything I had to pursue this," Foster said. "They gave these people a license to kill again."
OSHA Regional Administrator Greg Baxter expressed “heartfelt sympathies” to the “families affected by this needless tragedy” and said the criminal prosecution should send a message to "those who callously choose not to protect employees."
‘A Better Company’
RPI attorney Larry Pozner called it "a very sad case” and added: "We hope good will come out of this resolution."
Pozner said RPI intended to become a model of safety.
"The people in this company will never forget what happened," Pozner told The Denver Post. "They will never minimize what happened. And they vow to be a better company because of what happened."