Hoping to prevent future tragedies like deadly Sun Prairie explosion: Lawmaker introduces new bill

Hoping to prevent future tragedies like deadly Sun Prairie explosion: Lawmaker introduces new bill
Ole Allen

Nearly a year after the deadly explosion in Sun Prairie, a legislator from that city is hoping some good can come from the tragedy.

Rep. Gary Hebl, a Democrat from Sun Prairie, has crafted a bill that seeks to clarify who has to call Digger’s Hotline, Wisconsin’s one-call system for excavation.

“I really believe that this is an accident that should never have happened, and with proper precautions, it would never happen and should never happen again,” Hebl said.

In July 2018, 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.

Bear Communications initially hired a different company, Jet Underground, to do the work, and VC Tech was finishing the project.

Police said the subcontractor struck a gas main while doing excavation work, causing an explosion that killed Fire Capt. Cory Barr and leveled several buildings.

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 before working in Sun Prairie.

John Stephany, a construction and remodeling instructor, said best safety practices are “paramount” to the curriculum at Madison Area Technical College.

“If you’re going to put anything in the dirt, you call Digger’s Hotline, and they’ve made it so easy by turning everything to 811,” Stephany said.

He teaches his students that before any outdoor construction project — including building a deck, digging a trench, etc. — they have to dial 811. He said he shows his students visuals and presentations about what can happen if they don’t call.

“Worst case scenario is a gas explosion, and I’ve known of several instances over the last 30 years where that’s happened,” Stephany said.

Current state law requires that anyone who performs excavation work provides advance notice to Digger’s Hotline.

Hebl is now gathering co-sponsors for a bipartisan bill that would add specific language to Wisconsin law saying that contractors and subcontractors who perform excavation work have to call Digger’s Hotline.

“In other words, if I go to the contractor, the contractors had Digger’s Hotline mark the lines, and I rely on the contractor or another subcontractor, that is not enough. I need to have direct contact with Digger’s Hotline,” he said.

The bill is backed by a number of utility companies in Wisconsin, including Alliant Energy and Charter Communications.

Hebl also said his work in aiming to make the construction business safer is far from over. He is looking into new ideas on how to craft legislation to make sure that out-of-state companies are properly certified to do work in Wisconsin. VC-Tech is based in Michigan, and USIC Locating Services is based in Indiana.

He’s also looking into legislation and laws related to construction in other states and even Canada.

“I look at the stakeholders, I look at my constituents and I’m constantly a sponge for new information,” Hebl said.

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