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OSHA fines two contractors who caused deadly explosion in downtown Sun Prairie

Two contractors working in Sun Prairie ahead of an explosion that killed a firefigher and leveled much of the city’s downtown last summer have been fined by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration for their role in the blast.

OSHA investigators found Bear Communications, of Lawrence, Kansas, and VC Tech, a firm hired by Bear, had failed to call the Digger’s Hotline or utility owners to learn the location of a natural-gas line before digging on July 10 in downtown Sun Prairie to install a fiber-optic cable.

Neither company “within established or customary local response times, advised of proposed work, and asked to establish the location of the utility underground installations prior to the start of an evacuation,” according to OSHA.

While working for Bear Communications, VC Tech crews struck a natural-gas line, causing an explosion that killed the volunteer firefighter Cody Barr, injured eleven other people and destroyed six businesses and a home.

OSHA cited the two companies for a “serious” violation — a designation reserved for incidents that at least have the potential to cause death or “serious physical harm” — and hit them with a $12,934 fine each, the maximum amount allowed by law. The companies have 15 business days from when they received the citations to contest the findings before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Bear Communications did not respond to a message seeking comment by press time on Thursday. Contact information for VC Tech could not be found.

The companies involved in the blast appeared to catch a break last month when prosecutors, after finding the explosion had been the result of relying on incomplete and inaccurate information, declined to pursue criminal charges against them. But they’re now the subjects of various lawsuits.

VC Tech, Bear, We Energies and USIC Locating Services, an Indianapolis company that provides utility-location services, were all named as defendants in a lawsuit filed on Dec. 20 by Abigail Barr, the wife of the firefighter killed in the blast.

In a statement released a day afterward, USIC contended Sun Prairie officials were right to decide not to press criminal charges.

“During this holiday season, our thoughts remain with those families impacted by the Sun Prairie explosion,” according to the statement. “USIC is pleased that this past week, the Sun Prairie Police Department came to the correct conclusion that there was no probable cause to believe that a crime was committed by any USIC employee. ”

The companies are also being sued by two Sun Prairie firefighters who were injured in the explosion. Those plaintiffs, who blame the companies for the injuries they suffered and accuse them of construction negligence, are being represented by Clifford & Raihala, the same personal-injury firm out of Madison that is also representing Abigal Barr.

VC Tech and Bear Communications are also the subjects of lawsuits alleging they were trying to carry out excavation work without knowing the exact location of the underground gas line that was eventually ruptured after being hit by a drill.

For the Sun Prairie project, the companies are believed to have not called the state’s Digger’s Hotline and instead to have tried to learn the gas line’s location independently by relying on a ticket pulled in May by another company. The contractors also failed to try to learn the exact location of the line by talking to USIC.

The suits separately accuse USIC of failing to notify other companies that no one had marked gas lines at the intersection where the excavation was to take place and We Energies of not responding quickly to reports of a gas leak.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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