UPDATE – Heater blamed for fatal fire at 324-MW Cabin Creek

A heater used for mixing paint and epoxy apparently sparked the chemical fire that killed five employees of a California contractor working inside a dewatered penstock at Public Service Co. of Colorado’s 324-MW Cabin Creek pumped-storage project, authorities said Oct. 4.

Preliminary results of the Oct. 2 incident indicated workers from contractor RPI Coating of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., experienced a problem with a spray gun and hose used to apply a mixture of paint and epoxy for a penstock recoating job, the Clear Creek County sheriff’s office said. Workers added a solvent to the hopper used to mix the paint and epoxy to thin the mixture, but a heating element on the hopper kicked on, sparking a flash fire that filled the pipe with smoke, investigators said.

The dead were identified as: Anthony Aguirre, 18; Donald Dejaynes, 43; Gary Foster, 48; Dupree Holt, 37; and James St. Peters, 52. All five men were from California. Six other RPI Coating employees were on the job, including four inside the penstock below the fire who escaped, and two supervisors outside the penstock. The four workers who escaped, plus a fifth employee, a supervisor who rushed into the penstock, were injured.

The sheriff’s office would not comment on the status of the injured, citing confidentiality concerns. However, local media reported authorities said most of the injured workers were treated for chemical inhalation and released. One employee was reported to have been transported to a burn unit.

PSC’s parent utility, Xcel Energy, said nine employees of RPI Coating, also known as Robison-Prezioso Inc., were inside the penstock, 1,500 to 2,000 feet below ground, when the fire broke out about 2 p.m. Oct. 2. The five who were killed were trapped in the penstock above the blaze. (HNN 10/3/07)

The sheriff’s office said Oct. 4 it had transferred the leadership of the investigation to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation dispatched a crime scene investigation team from Denver to work with the sheriff’s office, Georgetown Fire Department, and OSHA.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorization will be required for any future work on the penstock and before the project can resume operations.

�The company will be required to submit an incident report and the commission will take further action based on the detailed facts,� FERC spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll said.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter pledged involvement by multiple state agencies in a thorough investigation. State agencies are to work with local and federal investigators to determine the cause of the incident. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission also is to become involved, once Xcel Energy files an incident report, which must be filed within 30 days, the governor’s office said.

The power plant was shut down for routine maintenance at the time of the incident. RPI Coating began work on the 4,150-foot-long penstock Sept. 4, recoating a 1,560-foot-long section inside the penstock to reduce or eliminate corrosion. The coating job originally was to have been completed Nov. 16.

There are no immediate plans for completing the job, or returning the power plant to service. Cabin Creek is a summer peaking plant and normally would not be returned to full operation until spring 2008, Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said.

Cabin Creek was licensed by FERC (No. 2351) in 1964 and commissioned in April 1967 on South Clear Creek and Cabin Creek near Georgetown in the Rocky Mountains. It features two 162-MW pump-generating units and upper and lower reservoirs.

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