By Robert Boczkiewicz
DENVER (Reuters) - Public utility Xcel Energy Inc. (XEL.N) and a subsidiary were acquitted on Tuesday of criminal charges stemming from a fire that killed five workers in 2007 at a Colorado hydroelectric plant.
A U.S. District Court jury returned the not guilty verdicts on the second day of deliberations after a 16-day trial in Denver.
Xcel and subsidiary Public Service Company of Colorado each were each charged with five counts of violating federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations and causing deaths.
The workers were relining a tunnel at the Georgetown, Colorado plant, about 45 miles west of Denver, when chemical vapors ignited in the pipe and fire blocked their escape.
Xcel has characterized the deaths at the plant as a tragic accident.
"It's not a day of joy," Xcel's lead attorney, Cliff Stricklin, told reporters after the verdict. "Xcel sends its deepest and heart-felt sympathy to the families of those men."
The company that employed the workers, RPI Coating Inc., of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., as a contractor for the utility, and two of its executives are scheduled to stand trial later this year on the same charge.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded in a report issued last year that Xcel and RPI failed to implement safety procedures for the safe handling of flammable liquids, the hazard of static discharge, emergency response and rescue, and fire prevention.
"Today the jury has spoken, finding Xcel Energy and Public Service Company not guilty of criminal violations of certain OSHA safety regulations," U.S. Justice Department spokesman Jeff Dorschner said in a written statement.
"We believe that this was an important case to prosecute, as it involved the loss of five lives. That said, we respect the jury's verdict," Dorschner said.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Bohan)