Accountability in faulty digging has been slow to come in Colorado, but is advancing
Gypsum home explosion could be first injury/death case to be heard
If the case of the Gypsum home explosion fatality reaches the Colorado Underground Damage Prevention Safety Commission, it is likely to be the first personal injury or death case to reach the group.
Formed in 2018, the commission is charged with reviewing complaints of alleged violations of Colorado law regarding excavation activities and ordering appropriate remedial action and penalties.
Responding to an all-too-common occurrence in Colorado, where an excavator hits an underground utility, causing a potentially lethal scenario, the Colorado legislature passed Senate Bill 18-167 in 2018, calling for the creation of the Underground Damage Prevention Safety Commission to enforce the state’s excavation requirements act. Among other requirements, the law mandates that anyone who intends to move or remove earth by means of tools or equipment must first contact the Colorado 811 hotline in an effort to identify all utilities in the area.
A 2015 investigation revealed that nearly 1,300 gas pipelines in Colorado were damaged during excavations that year, but no penalties were issued.
In 2016, the United States Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration determined that the enforcement is inadequate, “which may eventually result in the withholding of federal funds from Colorado,” the Colorado legislature reported.
In 2017, a flowline that had been severed less than 10 feet from a home’s basement in Firestone, Colorado, caused an explosion that killed two people.
Following that incident, then Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state is spending millions to make sure something like that never happens again.
“This is about as close to never as you’re going to get,” Hickenlooper said.
Getting to never
With several stakeholder groups involved in the process, getting to never starts with determining who is at fault when something does happen. Stakeholder groups include the excavators, who then call Colorado 811, which then ensures the facility owners visit the site and mark the underground facilities. Colorado 811 is on pace to receive 1 million requests to locate underground facilities in Colorado in 2020, said J.D. Maniscalco, CEO of Colorado 811.
Maniscalco said the areas of the country that are holding more stakeholders accountable to the law are the areas that have an enforcement agency, like the one that set up as a result of Senate Bill 18-167.
“(The Colorado Underground Damage Prevention Safety Commission) began to have hearings, and now we’re starting to get that traction, and starting to see what action they’re taking with non-compliance cases that are brought to the safety commission in this regard,” Maniscalco said. “So that, we feel, is going to improve damage prevention, as we move through time.”
The commission has heard a variety of cases, from minor offenses to major. The largest fines they have levied so far are penalties of $5,000.
In 2019, the Colorado PUC Pipeline Safety Program filed a complaint against JEB Electric for not notifying Colorado 811 prior to beginning excavation activities and striking a gas facility; a $5,000 fine was issued after the committee was persuaded, based on the evidence presented, that a violation of the excavation requirements act had occurred.
Colorado residents can file complaints, as well. Comcast received a $1,000 fine in 2019 after a citizen took action against them, requesting proof that Comcast has communicated to subcontractors who conduct excavations on Comcast’s behalf the responsibilities those subcontractors have in adhering to the excavation act’s requirements.
Eric Kirkpatrick, who is a member of the Colorado Underground Damage Prevention Safety Commission, said the commission has reviewed a case where a gas emission damaged a garage, but has yet to hear any personal injury or death cases.
‘Following statutes’ requirements’
Kirkpatrick said state statues like Colorado’s excavation requirements act are not recommendations, they’re the law, and better compliance with that law will increase the chances that tragedies like the Gypsum home explosion are prevented in the future.
On Sept. 17, 2020, Pati Ruiz Roe, a mother of two, was killed in her home in the Chatfield Corners neighborhood in Gypsum when the home exploded following a gas leak in the area.
The leak was reported at about 9:30 a.m. on that day and the explosion occurred at 12:35 p.m. A Comcast excavation project to install fiber-optic cable in the area was being performed by excavators Tactical Drilling; SEFNCO Communications Inc. is the Comcast subcontractor responsible for the underground drilling for the fiber project. SEFNCO hired Tactical Drilling.
According to a spokesperson for SEFNCO, Tactical Drilling had submitted its locate requests through 811 and said Black Hills Energy responded and marked its distribution lines on Aug. 3 and Aug. 26.
One of the issues now in question is whether the natural gas line locations were clearly identified at the Chatfield property. When contacted for comment, Black Hills Energy responded with a press release initially distributed on Sept. 19.
Kirkpatrick said the commission has heard complaints involving inaccurate marking of facilities — where the lines on the ground do not match up with the actual location of the underground utility line.
“The statute provides that the locating marks have to be within the specified distance of the actual facility,” Kirkpatrick said.
If an excavator discovers an underground utility has been improperly marked, “we have a process to call us back, to get the facility owners back out there,” Maniscalco said. “To reverify if the discrepancy between what that excavator finds, and what the facility owner has marked, we ask that they call us back so we can get the facility owner back out there to look at the situation again.”
In trying to prevent similar incidents, stakeholders must arm themselves with “The knowledge of the legal requirements … education for the parties involved, and then, in following those duties, there’s some skill involved,” Kirkpatrick said. “If I’m a contractor, I have to educate my employees, and they have to follow the requirements. And if I’m a utility owner, I need to make sure that I also follow the requirements. … That’s what drives public safety, following the statutes’ requirements.”
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