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Fiber contractors fined for damaging 766 lines, causing outages

Contractors installing fiber internet across Colorado Springs are causing serious damage to natural gas, water, and electric lines. In the last year, they’ve hit those neighborhood lines 766 times.
Posted at 2:15 PM, Mar 28, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-29 19:54:14-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — Contractors installing fiber internet across Colorado Springs are causing serious damage to natural gas, water, and electric lines. In the last year, they’ve hit neighborhood service lines 766 times. And 56 of those hits had a high probability of injuring someone or damaging nearby homes.

With companies like Quantum Fiber, Ting and Century Link hiring contractors to install fiber across the Springs, the number of digging accidents has increased, causing neighborhood outages and street closures. We wanted to know what is being done about it.

Colorado Springs Utilities now has the authority to issue a stop-work order for contractors who they think are practicing unsafe digging. The utility is also fining contractors, many from out of state, who are hitting water, electric and natural gas lines causing more than 450 neighborhood outages in the last year.

Colorado Springs Utilities wants to avoid a scenario like the one that played out on Thornhill Drive earlier this month when contractor Ranger Underground hit a natural gas line, sending flames shooting out of the dig site. The incident was quickly contained and no one was hurt. But potentially dangerous line hits are happening more often.

In the last year, contractors hit lines a total of 766 times, according to Colorado Springs Utilities data. Of those, 455 caused an outage. Data show CSU considers 56 of those hits major incidents which it defines as "blatant disregard" by the contractor "where the potential for injury to the public or property is highly probable."

Colorado Springs Fire Captain Tim Krantz says in March 2021, CSFD changed its deployment model due, in part, to the increase in digging mishaps; strategically positioning its trucks throughout the city so an engine company and truck company can respond instead of full hazmat.

"The vast majority of lines that are hit in the City of Colorado Springs are two inches or less, and our engine and truck companies can handle that without hazmat," Krantz said.

During prime dig season, from late spring through early fall, Colorado Springs Utilities says it can have up to 70 dig sites running simultaneously across the city. Each could require an emergency response. It is possible, Krantz said, if CSFD is responding to multiple utility calls, firefighters could be delayed in getting to another call for help.

"When we experience and increase utilization in a specific area, we'll move companies from other areas in town into those stations," he said.

In the last 100 days, CSFD's spokesperson Ashley Franco said it has responded to 180 gas line hits.

The risk of drilling is not a new concept for public utilities, but service line hits are happening more often given the increasing number of projects to install fiber internet.

"Fiber just fell in our lap. It's the big program that, you know, they're here to stay. It's going to be here for the next 5 to 8 years. And we have multiple fiber companies installing fiber all over Colorado Springs," said Calvin Eurek.

Eurek is half of a two-man team enforcing Utilities’ Damage Prevention Program -- out every day, checking whether contractors have what they need to dig safely -- proper equipment and clearances established, in contact with 811, and aware of the location of underground lines. Things get interesting when there are more than a dozen sites to check.

"You could have anywhere from 24 to 60 drills in the ground on one day. You know, that's a lot of different companies. It's a lot of people doing work at the same time," Eurek said.

And they all have to get the OK to dig. Calls to locate lines underground increased 32 percent from 2022 to 2023, according to CSU data, which it attributes entirely to fiber installation projects.

When you or a contractor call 811, someone from utilities will come out and mark where to avoid digging. You’ve probably seen these color codes painted on the street before – but did you know that yellow paint marks gas, red marks electric lines, blue is water and green indicates sewer lines.

"So fiber typically is put in the right-of-way, which would be the sidewalks or the beauty strip in front of your house. And fiber has to navigate around all these existing lines that were already in place when the house was built. So the reason fiber is such a big deal right now is that it’s the first time underground infrastructure is touching each house in Colorado Springs after the house was built," said Sean Frech, CSU Damage Prevention Program manager.

It explains why most of the outages and partial street closures you’re seeing are in neighborhoods, not commercial areas as contractors weave around water, gas, and electric lines to reach each house.

"Typically our damage shows that gas is the number one hit utility. In the past year, for two months in a row, it was electric. And that was attributed to the crossing of each house and service lines," Frech said.

In 2021 council members adopted new city code, bringing the enforcement of Colorado’s excavation laws to the local level. Instead of a state commission in Denver reviewing complaints of contractor’s line hits in the Springs, two Utilities’ employees now review all damage reports and decide the level of enforcement.

The following year, in 2022, Colorado Springs Utilities began fining contractors, and in some cases, requiring them to attend classes to ensure out-of-town crews know Colorado’s digging law.

"The fines range, depending on the severity level and the how many damages that particular excavator has in a 12-month period. And it ranges from $250 to $75,000 per occurrence," said Melissa Brown, CSU Regulatory Compliance manager who oversees the Damage Prevention Program.

Looking at the contractors who caused major damage in 56 separate line hits-- according to CSU data between January 2023 and January 2024, a number of contractors hit service lines multiple times. And each time they hit a line, the amount of the fine per incident increased. In total, CSU’s Damage Prevention Program collected $320,000 in 2023.

Based in Colorado Springs: Paonia Construction, Castro Construction, and Araco Group each hit lines four times in the last year, according to CSU data. And each had one major line hit. JCB Energy in the Springs hit lines seven times, twice causing major damage. A month before getting a $50,000 fine for hitting a line on Industry Road, DKG Communications shared this post on Facebook, “Safety is our number one priority.” But its crews hit 15 lines last year. Finally, WAR Construction hit 17 lines in the last year, with one major gas line hit along Dublin Boulevard.

News 5 reached out to the contractors who we could find to get a response. Three local companies we spoke with did not offer comment for this story. WAR Construction shares a name with another company in Alabama which did not do any work in Colorado Springs. The majority of the contractors who install fiber in Southern Colorado are from out of state. CSU says it knows of some instances where companies have changed names to avoid penalties.

In February, Colorado Springs’ Council approved updating the existing city code allowing Utilities the authority to issue a stop-work order to a contractor and amending the appeal process for contractor complaints over program practices or fines.

"So in 2023, we billed slightly over $500,000 in monetary penalties and collected a little over $300,000. And so some of those were billed late in the year, and we're still collecting. But we've collected a little over $320,000 from just last year.," Brown said.

Brown acknowledged not all of that money goes toward classes educating contractors on state digging law.

"No, it does not just go to classes. So the money goes back into creating safety videos. We also created a new position. We have a field auditor so that they can be our eyes and ears out in the field ... So it's all going back into the program. We have not spent over $300,000. But it's sitting there so it does not go into Colorado Springs Utilities' budget. It does not impact rates.

In a statement, CSU doubled down on the fact the increasing service line damage is not impacting customer rates. The statement said in part, "Our education and fine structure are aimed at reducing incidents, safeguard system reliability and protect public safety, without impacting customer rates. We do not anticipate a rate adjustment resulting from damaged utility lines.”

Other cities are looking to how Colorado Springs Utilities handles assessing damage locally as it is the only utility in the state to review digging incidents as they happen as opposed to sending them to the state commission for review.


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