The Cap Times
Jim and Calvin Jensen surveyed an intersection for a job installing fiber optic cable in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, during the summer of 2018. They did not like what they saw. The dense suburb east of Madison had a lot of old buildings, and a web of pipelines was lurkking beneath their feet, Calvin would later tell detectives.
The Jensens, a father-son duo at Jet Underground drilling company, decided they needed a more careful plan to drill.
Calvin, a 15-year veteran of the industry, relayed the conclusion to Bear Communications, the Kansas-based company that had hired Jet for the Sun Prairie job. On July 10, 2018, a Bear employee sent him a text: A competing driller had been hired. The work would be done faster.
In a Kwik Trip parking lot that morning, a Bear field supervisor handed the original drilling plans to Valentin Cociuba, owner of Michigan-based VC Tech.
Cociuba and his wife, Christen, a fellow VC Tech employee, told Bear it would need to find utilities beneath the intersection to meet the requirements of state law that would have added at least three days to the project.
“Don’t worry about locates,” a Bear employee responded in an email, believing that task was already complete. “They’re good to go.”
The underground utilities had not been found, investigators would determine. The “ticket,” which would have documented that task, expired weeks earlier. Valentin Cociuba would later acknowledge to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, which regulates public utilities, that he knowingly violated state law by digging without a proper ticket.
The decision would prove deadly.
Just after 6 p.m. on July 10, a VC Tech driller struck an unmarked natural-gas lateral, releasing gas that spewed out of storm sewers in front of a senior-living center and flowed into The Barr House, a tavern owned by Capt. Cory Barr, a Sun Prairie volunteer firefighter of 15 years, and his wife, Abby.
Less than an hour later, the gas ignited near the tavern, leveling the downtown intersection, critically injuring the firefighter Ryan Welch and killing Barr, who had also responded to the gas leak while off duty.
Nearly two years later, VC Tech has yet to pay the $25,000 fine levied by the PSC for violations resulting from the 2018 explosion. Nor has it attended a required $100 educational course, said the PSC spokesman Matt Sweeney.
VC Tech’s operators appear to be back in Wisconsin, installing fiber internet under the name Teracom Inc., interviews and documents suggest — but a lawyer representing the company disputes that.
The episode draws attention to what safety experts describe as a toothless regulatory system that allows drillers and excavators to routinely flout laws to cheaply complete work that brings internet, phone, water and natural gas to Wisconsinites.
“It’s like the Wild West,” said Robb Kahl, a former Democratic state legislator and former mayor of Monona. He is now executive director of the Madison-based Construction Business Group, an independent watchdog that investigates labor violations in Wisconsin.
Nearly 4,000 utility lines were struck in Wisconsin in 2018, according to data collected by the Common Ground Alliance, a national excavation safety group. The true number is likely higher.Unlike its neighbors, Wisconsin does not require that utility strikes be reported or investigated. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio require either reporting, an investigation or both.
But Wisconsin governments are doing little to push companies to operate more safely.
“While state law doesn’t provide the Commission the authority to prevent VC Tech from operating in the state, the fact that they may be continuing to operate here is of grave concern to the Commission,” Sweeney wrote in an email response to questions from the Cap Times and Wisconsin Watch.
The Sun Prairie Police Department found in 2018 that no crime was committed in the explosion. It blamed miscommunication between contractors. But industry experts called such an episode inevitable in Wisconsin’s largely unregulated excavation industry.
“There is no regulation for directional drilling,” said Kenneth Burks, a longtime Wisconsin directional driller.
John Coleman, an attorney representing VC Tech in pending lawsuits, disputed the notion that Valentin Cociuba had returned to drill in Wisconsin, saying that Cociuba “has nothing to do” with Teracom Inc. Cociuba could not pay the fine because Bear Communications — which declined to comment for this story — had yet to pay him $30,000 for the Sun Prairie job, Coleman said.
Materials collected by Construction Business Group tells a different story.
Trucks at a Pewaukee project site in March were registered to Cociuba, VC Tech and Teracom. The foreman at that site said he worked for Valentin under the name Teracom, citing VC Tech’s “bad publicity” in Wisconsin, according to CBG’s materials.
Additional laborers in Pewaukee confirmed that they worked for Cociuba, saying they were subcontracted by Ken Becker and Sons LLC of Lannon, Wisconsin, according to the CBG.
Teracom was established in 2019 under the names of Cociuba’s wife and father-in-law, a Michigan business incorporation document shows.
Directional drilling is a largely hidden, but complex, industry. More than 75,000 miles of natural gas pipelines crisscross Wisconsin, including dense networks under cities that leave little room for new installations — or for error.
Excavation issues caused 1,401 of Wisconsin’s 4,000 utility strikes in 2018, CGA data shows. Drilling or digging too close to a utility line resulted in 347 of those Wisconsin strikes, and most of those were caused by power-operated machinery — a violation of a Wisconsin law requiring hand tools be used within 18 inches of a buried utility.
Locators were equally at fault for utility strikes. Mistakes such as incorrect and incomplete markings resulted in 1,400 incidents.
Another 741 incidents resulted from excavators failing to call in a locate ticket, another violation of state law.
Strikes are harmless, until they’re not
Most natural gas strikes turn out to be harmless. Only a few lead to catastrophes.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reported 307 “significant” pipeline incidents nationwide in 2019, inflicting 35 injuries, 13 deaths and $289 million in damages. Excavators caused 44 of those incidents, which injured eight, killed three and cost $50 million.
In Grantsburg, a rural village in north-central Wisconsin, a contractor struck a natural gas line in October, setting ablaze a nearby home.
The Wisconsin PSC has investigated 11 complaints since lawmakers in 2018 instructed the agency to create a new oversight program, and it has fined three excavation companies a total of $38,500.
Kahl doubts those penalties will deter lawbreaking.
“It’s like getting caught robbing the bank and asked to give it back and they can go on their way, no penalty,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you just keep robbing banks?”