Challenges in underground safety after Sun Prairie explosion

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SUN PRAIRIE (WKOW) – State officials continue to explore methods to improve excavation safety after a deadly 2018 explosion in Sun Prairie, and maintain Wisconsin’s underground infrastructure as one of the safest in the nation.

“With all of the miles of line we have in the state, if you look at incident-per-mile rate, Wisconsin ranks in the top three (in safety),” says Martin Day of the State Public Service Commission’s Division of Energy Regulation.

Day says the PSC uses seven inspectors to ensure safety steps are taken when excavation takes place in connection with buried, natural gas lines.  He says on-site visits are both scheduled and random.

Hundreds of gas line breaks take place annually, but few snowball into a full-blown emergency.

On July 10, 2018, authorities say an excavator relying on the improperly marked location of an underground gas line ruptured the line in downtown Sun Prairie, leading to a gas leak and then a massive explosion in the city’s downtown.  Sun Prairie Firefighter Cory Barr was killed in the explosion and others hurt.  The excavator – VC Tech of Ypsilanti, Michigan – was fined $12,934 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for failing to contact Diggers Hotline before the excavation, believing a past contact with the safety organization cleared the digging.

Sun Prairie Democrat Rep. Gary Hebl has proposed stricter requirements on excavators in connection with Diggers Hotline.  Hebl is also looking at ways to provide emergency responders with more access to mapping of underground gas and fiber optics lines.

“We talked about the grid,”  Hebl says.  “It would be very nice if EMS and the fire department and the police department knew exactly where the gas lines were,”  he says.

On the surface, making such a blueprint available to key personnel makes sense.  “But the fear is there is sabotage,”  Hebl says.  “And there’s some legitimacy to that.”

Hebl wants to overcome security concerns.

“The grid idea of knowing where the power lines are is something we have to consider,”  he says.

Despite the work of a utility trouble-shooter and other personnel, the source of the continuing Sun Prairie gas leak could not be found in the forty-five minutes between the gas line rupture and the explosion.  A lawsuit brought against several firms by Barr’s widow Abby Barr maintains representatives of We Energies failed to address the leak situation with sufficient urgency, a claim the utility disputes.

Day says the emphasis on underground safety is only increasing as an infrastructure build-out continues.

“The increase in broadband and the change in technology, the 5G technology is really creating situations where people are just digging and doing a lot more work underground,”  Day says.

A complaint process allows someone to file with the PSC if there is an issue with whether a company contacted Diggers Hotline before excavating.  The complaint goes to a screening panel before it’s eligible to be sent on commissioners.

“The first step in that is really education,”  Day says, noting the complaint procedure was only put in place in recent months.  “There are so many actors in this system that you have to give them the opportunity to understand the rules.”

The complaint process does call for sanctions if a company is found responsible for failing to follow the Diggers Hotline safety protocol.

“We have the system in place in terms of a culture of safety,”  Day says.

Tony Galli

Tony Galli

Reporter, WKOW

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