Trial to begin in Cabin Creek pipeline deaths

4:41 AM, Jun 1, 2011   |    comments
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Xcel and the Public Service Company of Colorado are on trial for allegedly violating workplace safety rules.

In October 2007, five employees of RPI Coating were trapped when a fire broke out inside the Cabin Creek Hydro Plant pipeline, well below the surface of the ground near Georgetown. All five men were killed. The youngest was 19 and the oldest was 52.

When the fire happened, it was a worst-case scenario that became real.

"We have a fire in our penstock - our tunnel," a person told a 911 dispatcher at the time. "There are people trapped in that penstock."

The men had no way out. The chemical fire was 1,000 feet underground.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board says the men were working on relining the pipe when the fire began. The workers on one side of the fire had a path to safety. Those on the other side did not. They died in the pipe less than an hour later. The coroner says they were killed by the fire's smoke.

The trial against Xcel begins on Wednesday morning after attorneys for both sides worked to pick a jury on Tuesday.

"What is at stake is money and the integrity of Xcel," 9NEWS Legal Analyst Scott Robinson said. "Prosecutors will have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Xcel acted with criminal negligence."

The companies are not only being sued, but also prosecuted in a criminal court.

"Only a tiny fraction of these cases become criminal cases, statistically less than 50 in 200,000 workplace deaths end up in criminal cases," Robinson said.

Xcel operated the plant and hired a contractor to do the work. That contractor will be tried later and executives could face prison time.

There is no prison time for any Xcel employees, but the company could face millions of dollars in penalties.

"Xcel will argue this was an accident and if, in fact, it was a preventable accident, Xcel will point the finger of responsibility at the contractor," Robinson said.

Part of the problem, according to the original indictment, is the allegation that the work went on without the necessary permits needed for confined space regulations.

Xcel will not comment so close to the trial, but did talk about the incident in 2009.

"This was an accident, a tragic accident. We reject any attempt to characterize the Cabin Creek accident in any other way," Michael Connelly, lead attorney for Xcel, said at the time.

The trial itself will take weeks. Then there will be another trial that will go after a pair of executives of RPI Coating as well as the company itself.

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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