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Utility regulators fine contractor over Sun Prairie explosion

Part of downtown Sun Prairie lies in rubble following a gas explosion on July 11, 2018. On Thursday, state utility regulators voted to impose a $27,500 fine on VC Tech, contractor deemed responsible for the disaster. Along with destroying several buildings, the explosion killed Sun Prairie Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

Part of downtown Sun Prairie lies in rubble following a gas explosion on July 11, 2018. On Thursday, state utility regulators voted to impose a $27,500 fine on VC Tech, the contractor deemed responsible for the disaster. Along with destroying several buildings, the explosion killed Sun Prairie Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission on Thursday slapped a contractor with a $25,000 fine for failing to check for utilities before striking a natural-gas line in downtown Sun Prairie and causing an explosion that killed a firefighter.

The public service commission unanimously voted to fine the contractor, VC Tech, after finding the company had violated the state’s “one call” law when its workers failed to consult utilities or call the state’s diggers hotline before digging to install a fiber-optic cable. VC Tech workers struck a natural-gas line in downtown Sun Prairie, causing an explosion that leveled several buildings, injured eleven people and killed the volunteer firefighter Cody Barr.

“The requirements related to utility locating and marking prior to digging or excavating are in place in order to try and prevent exactly what happened in Sun Prairie a year ago,” said Commission Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq. “Let this be a warning to all parties involved in the practice of excavation that we view the “One Call” law as a vital matter of public safety.”

Beyond a fine, VC Tech will have to pay a $2,500 surcharge to the one-call system and attend an instructional course.

It’s the first time the public service commission has fined a contractor under a recently passed law that imposes penalties on diggers who fail to check for underground utilities before going about their work. Wisconsin law requires excavators to find and mark underground utilities before starting to dig. Under a 2017 law, a panel of experts can refer complaints against those that violate the law to the public service commission, which reviews whether there was probable cause to believe that a violation had indeed occurred. The complaint against VC Tech came from USIC Locating Services, a company that was hired to find underground utility lines.

The commission’s decision is only the latest penalty for VC Tech. In January, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company $12,934 for its role in the explosion. OSHA also levied the same fine on the Lawrence, Kansas-based company Bear Communications, which had hired VC Tech to work in Sun Prairie.

Dane County prosecutors declined to pursue charges against the contractors last year. But various outstanding lawsuits — including one from Barr’s widow, two injured firefighters and the city of Sun Prairie — accuse VC Tech, Bear Communications, USIC and We Energies all of wrongdoing.

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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