Underground Comcast work halted in Gypsum, Eagle following explosion that leveled house, claimed life
'This happened in an instant and it will take a while for us to compile everything we have'
Gypsum and Eagle have halted underground boring work that is part of Comcast’s fiber-optic project in the wake of a natural gas explosion on Sept. 17 that claimed the life of a Gypsum resident last week.
“We think that after an accident of this magnitude, it is only reasonable to put things on pause and to do our best to assess how the project is being conducted,” said Gypsum Town Manager Jeremy Rietmann in a Tuesday morning interview.
“We know there is just a shattering in the confidence of underground excavation right now,” Rietmann said. “We don’t have the answers yet. It is all under investigation.”
Eagle Public Works Director Bryon McGinnis said the town contacted Comcast on Sept. 17, immediately after the accident, to halt directional boring in the neighboring community. “To their credit, they had pulled all of their crews already,” he said.
Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, with assistance from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Colorado Department of Fire Prevention, is conducting the accident investigation. According to investigator Aaron Velheer with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, that work is ongoing. Additionally, Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis has yet to release the name of the woman killed in the accident.
Velheer said the Colorado Public Utilities Commission has contacted the sheriff’s office regarding its own accident investigation. “I am certain there will be other entities that will be looking into this as well,” Velheer said. “This happened in an instant and it will take a while for us to compile everything we have.”
On Monday evening, the town of Gypsum issued an official statement noting “Thursday’s (Sept. 17) natural gas accident was a tragedy for the entire community of Gypsum. None more so than the family directly affected, who suffered an unbearable loss. Our hearts go out to this family and they will need our community’s love, affection and support going forward.”
The statement noted that many residents are experiencing stress and anxiety in the aftermath of the accident.
“Please know that the town of Gypsum has put the fiber project on an indefinite hold for now,” the statement says.
Boring work on Eagle’s municipal broadband project has also been halted, McGinnis said, pending information from the Gypsum investigation.
The Gypsum statement notes that the town plans to convene all of the project partners and take whatever time is necessary to assess the current operational procedures.
“This was a horrible loss for all of those impacted in this community, and we offer our sincere condolences to the deceased’s family and loved ones,” said Comcast in a written statement on Tuesday. “Comcast will provide support to local community organizations, and we will continue working with the town and providing support as needed as this investigation progresses.”
Protocols and safeguards
“Time will be spent evaluating what additional protocols and safeguards can be established to ensure the safety of the project and our residents when it eventually resumes,” noted the Gypsum statement. “Once that operational plan is developed, the town will host a public meeting to share this plan before the project continues.”
Rietmann noted that while the Comcast project is happening in Gypsum, it is not a town project. Gypsum has a signed franchise agreement with Comcast which gives the company the ability to install infrastructure in the town’s rights-of-way.
“Any of the safety regulations are not unique to this project,” Rietmann said.
Prior to mobilizing for underground utility work, Comcast was required to call 811 to have other utility line locations called out on the site. SEFNCO Communications Inc. is the Comcast subcontractor responsible for the underground drilling for the fiber project.
SEFNCO employed another company, Tactical Drilling, which was at work at the site of the explosion on Sept. 17. According to a spokesperson for SEFNCO, Tactical Drilling had submitted its locate requests through the 811 system as required by Colorado regulation. The drilling company said Black Hills Energy responded and marked its distribution lines on Aug. 3 and Aug. 26 “according to publically available dig tickets viewable online.”
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. That statement includes a timeline of what happened prior to the explosion and a special notation that early reports of another leak were incorrect.
“As far as the town has been made aware, it was a single strike that caused a horrible outcome, but it is nothing that is systemic throughout the community,” said Rietmann.
Rietmann said Black Hills has informed the town that it has tested its system for other possible line breaches and found no other issues.
“If residents are concerned about previous trenching and boring work around the town, they should not have concerns about the work that has been previously done. Those lines have been pressure tested and they know the lines in Chatfield Corners are sound now,” Rietmann said.
Gypsum officials advised residents that on Sept 22, Comcast’s subcontractors were authorized to retrieve any equipment present in neighborhoods around town and complete activities that do not involve boring or trenching. This work will likely continue through the end of this week.
Rietmann also noted that Black Hills Energy is currently working to complete a transmission pipeline replacement project that began mid-May and is expected to be completed in October.
“The project does not require any boring, and is simply replacing pipe and tying it in to existing infrastructure,” he said.
The project includes three locations along US Highway 6:
- On Sept. 22, crews anticipated completion of tie-in work on the existing excavations in front of Costco.
- On Sept. 23, tie-in work is anticipated to be completed for United Ready Mix and National Guard locations.
- At Collett Corner, ongoing work will continue throughout the month of October.
Rietmann added that in mid-October the new line will be tied into the town border station located at Cooley Mesa Road and Valley Road.
“This component of the project will also not involve any boring,” said Rietmann.
As part of its statement, the town of Gypsum included the following safety information:
- Citizens who have continued questions about the impact of the incident and the safety of their gas service are encouraged to contact Black Hills Energy at 1-888-890-5554.
- Questions about the emergency response should be directed to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, Gypsum Fire Protection District and Black Hills Energy.
Because their electric and natural gas service was interrupted for an extended period, the Gypsum has arranged for Chatfield Corners residents to request additional trash pickup for spoiled food from Town of Gypsum Trash Services. The pick-ups could be scheduled either Tuesday or Wednesday and the service is offered free of charge. To make a request, email email@example.com or call 970-524-3121.