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Published June 28, 2011, 05:51 PM

Jury Acquits Xcel Energy of Violating Safety Rules in Deaths of 5 Workers

Xcel Energy Inc. and its Colorado subsidiary were acquitted of criminal charges Tuesday in the deaths of five workers at a hydroelectric plant tunnel in the mountains west of Denver.

By: Associated Press,

DENVER (AP) — Xcel Energy Inc. and its Colorado subsidiary were acquitted of criminal charges Tuesday in the deaths of five workers at a hydroelectric plant tunnel in the mountains west of Denver.

After nearly three days of deliberations, a jury in Denver's U.S. District Court acquitted the Minneapolis-based utility and Public Service Co. of Colorado of five counts of violating federal safety regulations, including not having a rescue plan.

The workers were trapped in the Cabin Creek plant tunnel near Georgetown, about 40 miles west of Denver, when a flammable solvent they were using to clean an epoxy paint sprayer ignited Oct. 2, 2007. The Cabin Creek plant tunnel runs through a mountain near Georgetown, Colo., about 40 miles west of Denver.

Rescuers tried lowering air tanks to the trapped workers, but the workers were overcome by smoke and fumes.

Federal prosecutors had argued that Xcel Energy knew about dangerous conditions deep inside the power plant tunnel and violated U.S. safety regulations.

But Xcel attorney Cliff Stricklin insisted the utility followed the law and that a California-based contractor that employed the workers was responsible for their safety.

Xcel and Public Service Co. were each charged with five counts of violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. If convicted, each company could have faced fines of up to $2.5 million.

Killed were Donald Dejaynes, 43, Dupree Holt, 37, James St. Peters, 52, Gary Foster, 48, and Anthony Aguirre, 18, all of California.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaime Pena said the jury considered all the evidence and his office respects the decision.

While pleased with the verdict, Stricklin said it wasn't a day of joy or elation. Xcel realizes that people are still grieving, Stricklin said.

Dupree Holt's widow, Gladys Holt, said she was disappointed and plans to return when contractor RPI Coatings Inc. stands trial. RPI and two of its executives have been charged in federal court. A trial date hasn't been set.

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