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Did subcontractor violate state law on day of Sun Prairie explosion? State investigates

SUN PRAIRIE EXPLOSION DSC_0191 Jude Lindsay.jpg
Photo courtesy Jude Lindsay

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. - For the first time, the public is hearing from the subcontractor whose workers struck the natural gas main in downtown Sun Prairie last July, causing the deadly explosion that killed fire Capt. Cory Barr.

"I start pulling back, and after 40 feet, the workers -- they start smelling gas," said Valentin Cociuba, the owner of Michigan-based VC Tech on Friday.

"What did you do then?" asked his lawyer, John Coleman, during a public hearing of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.

"I stopped and called 911," Cociuba said.

Subcontractor VC Tech was hired by contractor Bear Communications to install a fiber optics line for Verizon Wireless at the intersection of Bristol and Main streets in downtown Sun Prairie in July 2018. Bear Communications initially hired a different company, Jet Underground, to do the work, and VC Tech was finishing the project.

USIC Locating Service, the company contracted to mark the job site, filed a complaint against VC Tech with the state's Public Service Commission, alleging that the company violated Wisconsin state law when it failed to contact Diggers Hotline, the local one call system, before working in Sun Prairie.

"When we were doing the ticket search over a couple-day period, we had learned that VC Tech did not have a ticket in the area," said Brian Dreesen, USIC's director of operations for Wisconsin and Iowa.

Coleman told Fox 47 the claims against VC Tech were "false" and "inappropriate."

Documents show Jet Underground filed a project ticket June 7, 2018, with Diggers Hotline in order to work in downtown Sun Prairie. However, the lawyer for USIC argued that the project ticket would have expired after 10 business days under Wisconsin state law and would only have been valid for Jet Underground workers, not workers for VC Tech.

During the public hearing, Cociuba testified that he believed he was working in Sun Prairie under a valid project ticket. He said representatives from Bear Communications told him he was OK to dig.

Documents show a project engineer from Bear Communications sent him an email the morning of July 10, 2018, (the day of the explosion) saying, "It is already located," referring to the job site.

In the email, the project engineer also asked Cociuba to complete the job before July 14. Cociuba testified in the hearing that he was told to get the job done quickly.

Jet Underground requested USIC mark the line but court documents allege the locating service incorrectly marked it.

But USIC's lawyer, Traci Martinez, said the purpose of the public hearing was not to point blame at USIC.

"It's solely about whether VC Tech had a ticket," she said.

What happened on the day of the explosion?

On the morning of July 10, 2018, Cociuba said he received a text from a field supervisor at Bear Communications and met with him at a Kwik Trip gas station in Madison prior to starting work in Sun Prairie.

Cociuba, a directional boring contractor, said he told the man from Bear Communications, "We have to call locates," to which the man replied, "No, locates are already good" referring to the markings of the utility lines.

Cociuba, who said his company has done work in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, testified that he starting digging in downtown Sun Prairie when two city inspectors showed up looking for permits.

"They said, 'You're good to go. You're good to continue,'" Cociuba said of the inspectors.

At that point, Cociuba said he had a question about a gas main on Main Street and asked an employee of from another company working in the area to call USIC.

"I asked Andrew to ask him if everything is properly marked, and he said yes," Cociuba testified.

The digging was successful, Cociuba said, until he started pulling his machine up from the ground. That is when his workers started to smell gas. At that time, he not only called 911 but also 811 to alert Diggers Hotline that there had been a breach of a gas line.

What's next?

A spokesperson for the Public Service Commission said a decision is expected about whether VC Tech was engaged in any wrongdoing by the end of the summer. The company could face up to $500,000 in fines.

In January, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined that VC Tech and Bear Communications failed to contact underground utility owners or Diggers Hotline before drilling. Both companies were issued a serious safety violation, facing penalties of $12,934, the maximum allowed.

A criminal investigation into the matter found no crime was committed.

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