Federal authorities investigating a natural gas explosion that destroyed a city block of downtown Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and killed a business owner have faulted two utility contractors, alleging they failed to follow proper safety procedures before drilling underground lines.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) assessed one serious penalty each for Kansas-based Bear Communications and VC Tech of Michigan and proposed the maximum allowable fine of $12,934.
Verizon contracted Bear Communications to run fiber optic cable lines under the city. Bear Communications subcontracted VC Tech to perform horizontal directional boring – a technique used in laying underground lines without having to dig trenches and excavate.
Workers performing the operation struck an unmarked natural gas line that allowed gas to escape. The gas accumulated for about 45 minutes until it ignited. The gas explosion destroyed five buildings, damaged several others, and killed Cory Barr, a Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department captain and owner of a bar that was destroyed in the blast. Several residents and businesses were displaced by the blast.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Bear Communications originally subcontracted Jet Underground to perform the directional drilling but that company backed out of the job.
USIC Locating Services, which operates the “Diggers Hotline,” stopped marking the underground utility lines when it was told Bear Communications wasn’t moving ahead with the drilling project.
Instead of calling the Diggers Hotline to mark underground utilities – something companies are required by state law to do before digging – Bear and VC Tech proceeded with the horizontal directional drilling using utility markings that were only partially completed. VC Tech struck the utility line on July 10 and the gas explosion occurred after most people had been safely evacuated from the area.
USIC, which Mr. Barr’s widow names as a defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit, filed a complaint against VC Tech with a group that polices utility notification laws.
VC Tech illegally “piggybacked” on Jet Underground’s work orders when it failed to notify the Diggers Hotline it was moving ahead with the project vacated by Jet, USIC’s complaint alleges.
In addition to OSHA penalties, Bear Communications and VC Tech could face additional penalties by the Public Service Commission of as much as $25,000 per violation, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.