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Xcel Slammed For Response To Fatal Tunnel Fire

P. SOLOMON BANDA

DENVER (AP) â¿¿ The U.S. Chemical Safety Board slammed Xcel Energy Inc. on Monday for the company's handling of the aftermath of a tunnel fire that killed five workers at a hydroelectric plant, as well as for a host of "troubling episodes."

The board cited the electric and gas utility's failure to cooperate in the agency's probe, and said that investigators had to turn to the the U.S. Attorney's Office Civil Division in Denver to compel the company to turn over information.

"Xcel Energy believes it has always cooperated and acted responsibly and continues to be fully committed to safety as a core value and an operational priority," the company said in a statement.

The board, an independent federal agency that investigates serious chemical accidents and makes safety recommendations, plans to release its final report and recommendations on Wednesday.

That 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, contractor RPI Coating, and RPI executives Philippe Goutagny and James Thompson each are charged with violating U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. They're expected to go on trial next year.

The safety board said the report wasn't complete that it had instructed Xcel to keep the draft confidential.

Xcel also said it wanted to release the draft report because the company wanted to show that the board excluded findings of a gap in OSHA standards.

Xcel and the board are at odds over whether OSHA regulations were sufficient or clear enough to ensure worker safety. The board says the utility should have had a specially trained rescue crew on-hand in emergencies, rather than calling 911 as directed by Xcel's plan.

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