Federal officials investigating a 2007 fire that killed five workers at a hydroelectric plant said Wednesday that Xcel Energy Inc. and its contractor failed to adequately plan for hazardous work that included taking flammable solvents inside a 4,300-foot tunnel.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates serious chemical accidents and makes safety recommendations, called for strengthening federal and state regulations to prevent workplace deaths like those at the power plant near Georgetown, about 40 miles west of Denver.
The board recommended a safety bulletin and clear regulations from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration that spell out when flammable materials make an enclosed space such as a tunnel unsafe to enter. The board also recommended state changes, including a firefighter training program for rescues in tunnels and other special areas, and Public Utilities Commission regulations that require utilities to select contractors based on safety.
Board members noted that Xcel also ignored RPI Coatings Inc.'s poor safety record when it chose that company to sandblast a 1,500-foot section of tunnel and re-coat it with epoxy paint primarily because it was the lowest bidder.
Officials with Minneapolis-based Xcel didn't immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
RPI, formerly known as Robison-Prezioso Inc., had been investigated by OSHA for mishaps that involved two fatalities, including that of a motorist in September 2001, during a lead removal and repainting project on the Bay Bridge that connects Oakland and San Francisco.
OSHA proposed $59,000 in fines for safety violations in those two cases that are listed as open, according to the board's report.
"Xcel not only did not adequately plan for the operation, but it selected the painting contractor with the lowest possible safety rating among the bidders, and it did so mostly on the basis of cost — it was the lowest bidder," board member Mark Griffon said in remarks prepared for a news conference Wednesday.
The report notes that before the project began, both Xcel and RPI expressed concerns about there being only one entrance to the tunnel.
"But despite this, no plans were made for prompt rescue in an emergency, and no rescuers qualified to enter this confined-space environment were standing by," board member William B. Wark said in prepared remarks.
Specially trained crews did not arrive at the scene until about 1½ hours after the fire started. A rescue would have involved firefighters using ropes or ladders to go down a 20-foot vertical section of tunnel, then down a 1,000-foot, 55-degree-sloped section of tunnel to reach a horizontal section where the workers were.
The report comes about two weeks after Xcel decided to release a draft version after initially trying to block it. The company feared it would be released close to the criminal trial in the case, possibly influencing jurors.
Xcel, RPI Coating, and RPI executives Philippe Goutagny and James Thompson each face federal charges of violating OSHA standards. They're expected to go on trial next year.
The safety board said the report Xcel released wasn't complete and that it had instructed the company to keep the draft confidential. Board members admonished the company in a letter sent earlier this week to Xcel CEO Richard Kelly.
The report provides a detailed account of the events leading up to the October 2007 fire that killed Donald Dejaynes, 43, Dupree Holt, 37, James St. Peters, 52, Gary Foster, 48, Anthony Aguirre, 18 — all from California. All ultimately died from smoke inhalation, according to the report. Three workers were injured.
Workers had just finished sandblasting the inside of a portion of the tunnel that serves as a pipe from a mountain reservoir to a hydroelectric generator. They began spraying an epoxy paint inside the tunnel and were having problems keeping the mixture flowing through the hoses.
They painted only about 10 feet of the tunnel when they decided to stop for the day. They were cleaning their spraying equipment with a flammable solvent when a static spark likely ignited the fire, according to the report.
The five trapped workers communicated via radio for 45 minutes with colleagues and rescue crews. Firefighters who first arrived at the scene attempted a rescue by taking a small gas-powered ATV through the entrance and up the tunnel, but they were turned back by thick smoke.
Board investigators said workers did not have a fire extinguisher near the work area. The initial flash fire had calmed down before other 5-gallon and 2-gallon buckets of solvent and epoxy began burning.