Gypsum shares plans for resumption of Comcast project
Following Sept. 17 explosion that claimed a resident's life, Gypsum officials have dissected processes and protocols
For more than 50 days, the town of Gypsum halted underground utility construction after a local woman lost her life in a natural gas explosion that leveled her home in the community.
According to Gypsum Town Manager Jeremy Rietmann, town officials and representatives from the companies who were involved with the tragic accident spent that time dissecting the processes and practices employed in local underground utility projects. In a Thursday Zoom meeting, Gypsum officials and representatives from Comcast, SEFNCO and Black Hills Energy reported back to Gypsum residents. The session drew 141 participant registrations.
“I would much prefer, and all of us would much prefer, holding this meeting with all of you present,” said Rietmann to introduce the session. But with COVID-19 numbers increasing locally and statewide, the virtual format was the only option, he noted. Attendance during the session fluctuated between 85 and 105 people.
From the onset, Rietmann noted that the meeting would not be a discussion of what happened on Sept. 17. Instead, he noted, the session would focus on revisions to Gypsum’s underground permitting process and construction protocols.
“I understand that there are lots of questions about the accident,” Rietmann said. “It really has been heart-wrenching for everyone. What we can do, and what the town’s commitment has been since this accident occurred, is to be as transparently forward-thinking as we can.”
Work will go on
Some Gypsum residents want the Comcast project — planned to increase broadband width in the community — halted. That’s not going to happen.
In 2018-19, Comcast negotiated a franchise agreement with the town that gives the company the right to construct its improvements in the town right-of-way. But Rietmann noted that beyond those legalities, there is a demonstrated need for the project. He spoke of the hundreds of calls he has fielded from town residents complaining about local internet service.
“As we are learning through COVID, our community needs reliable broadband,” Rietmann said. “It’s just a requirement of a modern community. It’s an investment in our community of today, for our residents of today, but it is also an investment in our community of tomorrow.”
Rietmann said it just isn’t in Gypsum’s best interests to shut down the Comcast work. “That is why we have worked very hard and very diligently with all of these partners to make this project as safe as it can be.”
According to Jim Hancock, Gypsum’s assistant town manager and the town engineer, roughly 70% of the Comcast project requires underground boring.
“Of that 70%, about two-thirds of the work has been completed to date, meaning about one-third of the underground work has yet to be completed,” Hancock said.
Nov. 9 resumption
Beginning Monday, the town of Gypsum will open up its permitting process to resume underground utility projects.
“This means restarting the permitting process and continued non-excavation work such as fiber pulling and locate work,” Rietmann said. “Restart timing for underground work will be contingent upon the completion of the permitting and locate procedures.”
As a result of its discussions since the accident, Gypsum officials have revised the town’s permitting process. Gypsum requires a permit before underground boring begins and under the new procedures, high intensity utilities such as natural gas and electric will be involved in the permitting review. Representatives from utilities that are already located in the right-of-way will review boring plans to determine if there are specific areas of concern — when work will cross existing lines or proceed in close proximity to them.
The new procedures for the town extend beyond review and into the field with local safety protocols laid on top of the 811 system.
“We have all heard the ‘call before you dig’ mantra,” Hancock said. That tagline is part of the 811 utility locate system that is administered through the state of Colorado.
Brian Strand of SEFNCO, Comcast’s subcontractor for the underground boring work, noted the 811 system was established in 1986. Utility companies and their subcontractors are required to participate in the system which governs a process mandating that utilities locate the position of their underground lines when a new project begins work in the town right-of-way.
When a company calls 811 for locates, utilities with lines in the right-of-way are expected to send out a location technician within 48 hours of the request. Strand said industry standards dictate the markings — yellow for natural gas, red for electricity and blue for water, for example.
Going forward in the Comcast project, locate meetings will be held in the field so the different utilities and the construction crews can ensure all parties have complete information about the site. Additionally, the existing utility companies can request visual verification or potholing — a process to locate lines — if there is uncertainty.
The town and the utility companies agree these expanded communications protocols will enhance safety for construction efforts. But improved communications don’t stop there.
Representatives from Comcast pledged direct notification for Gypsum residents as work proceeds in their neighborhoods.
“What we really mean is door hangers,” said Andy Davis, director of governmental affairs for Comcast.
Residents can expect three door hangers when the project comes to their neighborhood. The first is the locate work notification. The second will be a pre-construction notification. The final notice will tell residents Comcast service to their homes is available.
Davis said a project website, colorado.comcast.com/gypsum, will provide a community map featuring construction information. The map will be updated weekly and will launch on Nov. 9, Davis said.
Additionally, Strand urged residents to call SEFNCO directly if they have concerns about company operations in their neighborhoods. The company number is 970-340-3150.
With the caveat that questions about the Sept. 17 accident would not be addressed, Gypsum resident Grant Murphy acted as the meeting moderator. Residents submitted dozens of queries to Comcast, SEFNCO, Black Hills Energy and town of Gypsum representatives. Questions covered topics ranging from general natural gas safety procedures to certification requirements for equipment operators to project scope. The entire meeting, including the community question and answer session, can be viewed on the town’s website and a Spanish translation of the session will be posted early next week.
In response to a question about remaining work, Comcast Director of Construction Blake Nelson said the company originally planned for a 12- to 18-month construction program in Eagle and Gypsum. He said Comcast hopes to complete its project by the third quarter of 2021.
“That is dependent on weather and the conditions we work under,” Nelson said.
As winter approaches, conditions aren’t optimum, Strand added. “There will be very little construction, in any at all, going on in the winter months.”
After more than two hours of discussion, Gypsum Mayor Steve Carver concluded the meeting.
“I think the people who have been listening in tonight can see all the work that has been done. Our community is a family. We want you to feel as safe as possible,” Carver said.