A lawsuit over a gas pipeline explosion in Oconomowoc seeks to assign blame and penalties, while industry leaders search for ways to prevent such accidents.
A company that insured two homes destroyed in the April 2008 blast sued We Energies and contractor Dorner Inc., Luxemburg. The utility owned the abandoned gas line that Dorner broke.
But the explosion also sparked a discussion among contractors, utilities, Diggers Hotline representatives and pipe locators over how to avoid pipe strikes.
Lawsuits and government regulations that penalize companies after accidents are not the best ways to prevent problems, said Richard Wanta, executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of sanctions and fines and everything,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of education.”
The groups involved in underground pipe safety are brainstorming about ways to identify problem companies and get them to act safely, said Chad Krueger, public relations manager for Diggers Hotline, which must be called before any excavation. If companies involved in the process — those that mark gas line locations, those that keep the pipe maps or those that do the digging — report repeated safety violations by other companies, the offending firms can be identified for improvement, he said.
“This is kind of all in the discussion stages now,” Krueger said. “There is nothing moving forward now. This is an idea that we’ve thrown out there.”
Krueger said it is too early to say whether government agencies would get involved.
The federal government urges states to create programs to police utility hits, determine what caused the accidents and assign responsibility.
The companies involved in the Oconomowoc lawsuit are arguing over responsibility in Waukesha County Circuit Court. Attorneys for State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., which insured the two homes, are arguing Dorner and We Energies are responsible. But We Energies attorneys, who filed a response to the lawsuit Monday, say Dorner is responsible.
Earlier this month, attorneys representing Dorner argued that if the contractor and its insurer, Acuity, A Mutual Insurance Co., Sheboygan, are found guilty, We Energies should pay for all or some of the damages.
Wisconsin does not have a state agency to determine fault in pipe strikes, and Wanta said determining fault does little to solve the problem. He wondered what utilities can do to determine if gas is flowing through abandoned pipes.
“How do you make sure that this doesn’t happen again tomorrow?” he said. “What has to be done with abandoned gas services?”
Contractors should call We Energies every time an unmapped underground line is discovered, said Brian Manthey, We Energies spokesman. When called, the utility sends out crews to check the pipe. In most cases, that means drilling a small hole in the line, he said.
Manthey said organizations such as the Wisconsin Damage Prevention Council can get all of the parties together to determine if there are recurring problems and propose solutions.
“The more you can have that voluntary participation in compliance,” he said, “the safer everybody can be out there.”