State utility regulators asked to weigh penalties in Sun Prairie explosion
For the first time under a new law, state utility regulators have been asked to consider imposing penalties on the drilling company involved in last summer’s fatal Sun Prairie natural gas explosion.
A panel charged with policing utility notification laws last week sent the Public Service Commission a case based on a complaint filed by USIC Locating Services, the company that was hired to mark the locations of underground pipes prior to the explosion, which killed a firefighter and injured others.
USIC claims drilling company VC Tech violated state law when owner Valentin Cociuba failed to notify the state utility call center, known as Diggers Hotline, before starting work on July 10.
Under state law, the commission can issue a fine of $25,000 per violation. VC Tech could face up to $500,000 in fines if the commission finds multiple violations.
The complaint was forwarded to the PSC on Dec. 17, one day before police closed their investigation with no criminal charges. All the companies involved are named as defendants in pending civil lawsuits.
The explosion happened after VC Tech struck an underground gas line while boring a hole for fiber-optic communications cable being installed for Verizon.
According to a police report, USIC did not finish marking gas lines when a subcontractor dropped out of the project. Bear Communications, the primary contractor, then told VC Tech to complete the job believing the marking was complete.
Sun Prairie police determined the incident was the result of miscommunication between utility contractors and subcontractors and the evidence did not support criminal charges.
USIC’s complaint, filed Oct. 30 with Diggers Hotline, alleges VC Tech illegally “piggybacked” on the previous excavator’s work order and failed to notify the call center before beginning work.
State law says excavators must update the hotline if work is interrupted for more than 10 days.
“VC Tech’s violation and failure to make a locate request directly resulted in loss of life, personal injury and significant property damage,” the complaint states. “This catastrophic event would not have occurred had VC Tech complied with known Wisconsin law.”
USIC’s attorney claims the company’s operations were disrupted by the explosion and subsequent criminal investigation.
A letter from VC Tech’s attorney denies the company did anything wrong or that USIC has been harmed and called the complaint “specious and submitted in bad faith.”
VC Tech was one of several drilling contractors hired by Bear on the project, which required excavators to start and stop work on short notice, according to the company’s response.
In an email sent the morning of the incident, the project manager for Bear told Cociuba that the project had been marked. According to police reports, neither company contacted Diggers Hotline, but the previous subcontractor filed a request in May.
USIC’s attorney was not available to comment Wednesday. An attorney representing VC Tech declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
On Oct. 17, authorities unsealed a search warrant filed in July that said a Wisconsin-based worker for USIC failed to correctly mark a gas line in the street where it was actually located and instead marked a spot about 25 feet away on a sidewalk where there was no gas line.
The warrant sought evidence to support a possible charge of second-degree reckless homicide.
The same day police closed the case with no criminal charges, Abigail Barr, the widow of Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr, who was killed by the explosion, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against VC Tech, Bear Communications, USIC Locating Services and WEC Energy Group, known as WE Energies.
Volunteer firefighters Ryan Welch and Greg Pavlik also filed lawsuits against the four companies for personal injury.
This is the first case forwarded to the PSC by Diggers Hotline, the nonprofit company in charge of providing utilities information about upcoming excavations.
Anyone who plans to dig in Wisconsin is required by law to contact Diggers Hotline at least three working days before breaking ground. Hotline operators then notify utility companies with nearby lines, and those companies are responsible for having the locations marked. In this case, WE Energies contracted with USIC to do the marking.
A law passed earlier this year established an enforcement panel to handle complaints regarding natural gas and other hazardous materials. The panel, formed in July and comprising appointees from various industry groups and local government, met Dec. 12 to consider USIC’s complaint.
Diggers Hotline does not identify panel members.
According to meeting minutes, the panel found probable cause that a violation occurred and voted 4-2, with some members abstaining, to forward the case to the PSC for possible enforcement.
Diggers Hotline spokesman Chad Krueger said this is the first complaint the panel has sent to the PSC. Six previous complaints were resolved by requiring additional training for the violator.
According to the minutes, panel members were “concerned about USIC using the panel’s decision as a piece of evidence in future investigations” and urged the PSC to look at “all parties and angles in this incident.”