A series of mistakes made by Xcel Energy Inc., a large utility company, and a California painting contractor led to a 2007 fire that killed five workers in Colorado, according to a report released by the federal Chemical Safety Board. The men suffocated after a chemical flash fire broke out in a tunnel at the Cabin Creek hydroelectric power plant in the Rocky Mountains, about 45 miles west of Denver. At the time, crews were giving the tunnel a fresh coating of watertight epoxy.
The board faulted the firms for a “lack of planning for hazardous work, inadequate contractor selection” and for use of flammable chemicals in tight quarters. Cabin Creek is owned by Denver-based Public Service of Colorado which is owned by publicly traded Xcel, based in Minneapolis, owner of utilities in eight states. Public Service of Colorado, says it has changed the way it manages contractors and claims it does a better job analyzing hazards, in an attempt to prevent accidents. The company disagreed with some of the report’s findings and conclusions, including that Xcel exercises poor oversight.
In its report, the chemical safety board also urges the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set more explicit limits on use of flammable substances in confined industrial spaces. The board cited 53 serious fires in confined spaces from 1993 to April 2010 that killed 45 people and injured 54 more. It should be noted that the chemical safety board investigates chemical accidents, but doesn’t levy fines.
OSHA is currently studying the report. The Agency’s investigation of the Cabin Creek accident led to criminal indictments last year against Xcel, Public Service Co., the painting contractor, RPI Coating Inc., of Santa Fe Springs, California, as well as two RPI executives, accusing them of willful violations of OSHA rules. Prosecutors alleged the companies didn’t assess the hazard involved in the job, take steps to prevent an accident, or respond to the accident quickly enough. The companies and individuals have pleaded not guilty and a trial is expected next year.
The first mistake that led to problems, according to the report, was Xcel’s selection of RPI. The contractor had scored low on Xcel’s internal safety rankings for prospective contractors, and it picked as a cleaner a common, but highly flammable solvent – methyl ethyl ketone, commonly referred to as MEK.
The second problem was when workers used an epoxy that was poorly suited to the job because temperatures were too cold for that material to work well. As epoxy gummed up spraying machinery, workers used large quantities of solvent to unplug their sprayers. Solvent became airborne and a flash fire erupted. Fire then spread quickly to open buckets of solvent and epoxy. Some workers escaped, but five men were trapped behind flames and retreated into the tunnel, more than 1,500 feet from fire extinguishers and the exit. They died about an hour after the fire erupted, before they could be reached by rescue workers.
Xcel went to court in June seeking a gag order to prevent the chemical safety board from releasing the report or posting to the agency’s website a video re-enactment of the accident. U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel said he was not persuaded by the utility’s argument that release of the report and video could taint a jury pool. Clearly this is information that the public needs and to which they are entitled from a public safety perspective.
Source: Wall Street Journal
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