Settlements Seen in Painters’ Deaths

THURSDAY, MAY 30, 2013

A coating contractor and Colorado utility implicated in the 2007 deaths of five painters are reportedly close to settling federal safety cases for reduced amounts.

RPI Coating Inc., of Santa Fe Springs, CA, cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with 40 violations in the case, has reached a tentative settlement that would delete all of the company’s willful safety violations and reduce the $845,100 in original fines to $100,000, according to OSHA records.

The settlement is not yet final, and the case is still classified as open. OSHA declined to comment Wednesday (May 29), and a message left with RPI (also known as Robison-Prezioso Inc.) was not immediately returned.

Meanwhile, Public Service Co. of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, has told the Denver Business Journal that it has resolved all of its OSHA citations in the case, settling its original fines of $189,900 for $150,000.

OSHA also declined comment on the Xcel case, and OSHA records still show the original citations.

Fire and Death

The painters, ages 19 to 52, were trapped by a fire 40 feet underground at Xcel’s Cabin Creek hydroelectric plant near Georgetown, CO.

The fire broke out during a project to reline the penstock, a steeply sloping, underground tunnel nearly 1,000 feet long. A 2000 inspection by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that the epoxy lining on the interior of pipes was deteriorating. This was leading to damage of the pipes themselves.

The coating project did not begin until 2007.

RPI Coating was selected for the project in a competitive bidding process, although Xcel had rated the company's safety profile as "zero."

Xcel Cabin Creek
U.S. Chemical Safety Board

Crews worked for more than two hours to reach the painters. Both the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and OSHA said RPI and Xcel shared responsibility for the accident.

On Oct. 2, 2007, the workers had finished painting for the day and were cleaning a sprayer with some of the 15 gallons of flammable solvent on the site.

According to OSHA’s records, "The sprayer was not operating correctly and the crew was directed to use approximately 5 to 10 gallons of methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) to flush the hoses. The flammable MEK vapors and liquids ignited into a flash fire."

Emergency crews worked intensely for nearly two hours to reach the painters, but they asphyxiated before help could arrive.

Dozens of Citations

In March 2008, OSHA issued violations against both the contractor and the utility.

RPI was cited for 13 willful, 25 serious and two other violations. The willful violations—OSHA’s highest level of infraction—carried $778,500 in fines.

Xcel received 19 serious and two willful violations. The willful violations carried $126,000 in fines.

“Immediately after the accident, we conducted an extensive review of our policies and practices and took action to prevent future accidents,” Xcel told the Denver Business Journal on Friday (May 24).

“We have now reached a fair and reasonable settlement with OSHA in which we have agreed to accept certain citations and to pay $150,000 in assessed penalties.”

Xcel Cabin Creek
Xcel Energy

Xcel's Cabin Creek hydroelectric plant, located high in the Rocky Mountains, was completed in April 1967.

Xcel added, “We believe it is in the best interest of all parties involved to move forward and put this matter behind us. We are committed to continuous improvement in every area of our business, and there is nothing more important to us than the safety of our employees, contractors, and the general public.”

The statement did not individually detail disposition of the citations, the newspaper said. Xcel did not respond to a request for more information.

Criminal Charges

Xcel, RPI and two RPI executives were all indicted in August 2009, accused of knowing that the relining project posed serious health and safety hazards to employees in the penstock. An investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board also concluded that RPI and Xcel shared responsbility for the disaster.

In June 2011, a Denver jury found Xcel not guilty of five counts of violating federal safety regulations; one of those counts had accused the company of lacking a rescue plan.

Six months later, RPI president Philippe Goutagny pleaded guilty on behalf of his company to five misdemeanors in a plea bargain to resolve the case. The company agreed to pay $1.65 million (including $1,275,000 for the victims’ families) and accept five years of probation.

In early May, the Colorado Court of Appeals dismissed lawsuits against the spray equipment maker and two other companies who had been accused of negligence in the deaths.


Tagged categories: Confined space; Enforcement; Fatalities; Fire; Health & Safety; Laws and litigation; Linings; OSHA; Power Plants; Protective Coatings; Solvent and chemical cleaning; Spray equipment; Tunnel

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