Danger Underground: Safety after Sun Prairie explosion

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SUN PRAIRIE (WKOW) – As authorities consider possible criminal charges in connection with Sun Prairie’s deadly downtown natural gas explosion, stakeholders with underground utilities say adherence to best practices and new technology hold promise for safer, future excavation.

The blast July 10 in downtown Sun Prairie killed Sun Prairie businessman and firefighter Cory Barr, injured others, and damaged buildings.

July search warrant records unsealed recently state Sun Prairie police suspect the crime of Second Degree Reckless Homicide was committed.  The warrant’s affidavit and return show equipment from the scene of the blast was seized.

The affidavit states an employee of the underground utility-locating firm USIC improperly marked the gas line, painting them on a sidewalk 25 feet from the line’s actual location.  The line was severed by an excavator, causing the explosion a short time later.

Attempts to reach USIC at a Sun Prairie satellite office, at its Indianapolis headquarters, and through its corporate attorney, produced no response or comment.

The warrant affidavit states a sub-contractor on the excavation work maintains “…a utility locate was placed through Diggers Hotline on 7/09/2018.”

In a statement to a financial website, USIC shifts blame to those involved in the excavation, claiming no contact with Diggers Hotline was made. Diggers Hotline spokesperson Scott Krueger says a locate-request is a transaction between an excavator and a utility, and Diggers Hotline has no comment on the situation.

State law requires contact with Diggers Hotline before any excavation.

“Calling Diggers Hotline is a great first step,” Krueger tells 27 News.  “It’s not the only step in safe excavation.”

But with an expected 3.9 million locate requests going out to utility companies this year, Krueger says the hotline contact is critical.

“Anywhere you dig in the state, there’s no guarantee you’re free and clear,” Krueger tells 27 News.  “There are buried lines in the middle of a farm field, through wooded areas: it’s not just along the curb, along the city street, not just in your backyard with your cable TV line,” he says.  “These buried lines are all over.”

Some utilities primarily carry out the location of underground lines with their own personnel, including Madison Gas & Electric.

“Our field technicians who do underground locating average more than 20 years of experience here at MGE,” company spokesperson Steve Schultz says.  “They tend to have backgrounds in the utility construction industry. As part of their job, our locators go through regular training.”

Sun Prairie locate sub-contractor USIC states on its website it performs over 70 million locates nationwide annually.  “USIC is the most trusted name in underground utility damage prevention,” the website states.

One Madison firm believes its technology is a key to improving the accuracy of locating underground utilities.

Berntsen International provides customers with small infra-markers for placement underground near utilities.  The infra-makers use radio frequency identification (RFID) to transmit information, so precise data is available to staff above ground through programs on cell phones and other devices.

“We think its an answer,” Berntsen International spokesperson Kari Campbell says.  “It’s a new solution that can really solve a lot of the problems that have been traditionally happening in underground utility locating.”

Berntsen notes approximately 300,000 accidental utility “hits” took place nationwide in 2017.

“Over half of those…hits were due to inefficient excavation practices and locating practices,” she says.

The damaged section of Sun Prairie’s downtown reopened this month to traffic and several businesses damaged heavily by the explosion are operating.  City leaders have reviewed and modified excavation permit processes to continue to address safety.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne tells 27 News he needs to review more data to determine if the July calamity involved any criminal act.

Tony Galli

Tony Galli

Reporter, WKOW

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