- Associated Press - Sunday, October 8, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Allo’s massive digging operation has unearthed a series of public safety and business challenges in Lincoln as its crews hustle to provide high-speed internet citywide.

Predictably, contractors installing Allo’s fiber-optic cable have been the main contributors to a surge in the number of ruptured underground gas lines in the city.

Black Hills Energy reported an 81 percent increase in gas line strikes in the first eight months of 2017 compared with the same period last year.

Those incidents keep Lincoln Fire and Rescue’s hazardous materials crews running - but city and utility officials say that’s an inconvenient reality of unprecedented excavating, not a sign of rampant negligence.

“I think we are going through some growing pains because we’re seeing some rapid changes in our community,” City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick told the Lincoln Journal Star .

While that increase hasn’t hit concerning levels, Black Hills officials say Allo’s work has caused a different kind of financial strain on the utility, which should be accounted for the next time state regulators set rates for its natural gas customers in Lincoln.

Nebraska law requires gas providers to mark buried lines two days prior to excavation, free of charge, and Black Hills says Allo’s work has contributed to a 123 percent year-over-year jump in those requests.

On Monday, Black Hills told the Nebraska Public Service Commission that the additional work required for Allo will cost the utility $1.6 million more than it projected last time its billing rates for gas service were approved by the commission, which regulates natural gas providers.

The utility asked Allo to help recoup this cost or to slow its pace, but the company refused, Black Hills vice president of Nebraska operations Jeff Sylvester said in testimony to the commission.

Allo began installing fiber-optic cable in the rights-of-way in mid-2016 as part of a $100 million project to provide every Lincoln home and business access to high-speed internet by 2020. The Nelnet-owned company’s crews are currently working in north and east Lincoln.

It’s one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country, and has been well-publicized, said Allo President Brad Moline.

“We realize this project has required resources and appreciate the support and expertise we have received from all of the utilities throughout the process,” Moline said in an email.

The increase in ruptured lines has led to more disputes over who should cover the city’s expenses for sending emergency crews, said Assistant City Attorney Liz Elliott.

“It’s a lot more wrangling and coordinating with people than it used to be, because we just didn’t have this many,” she said.

City officials have billed Allo for about half of the instances where Lincoln Fire and Rescue crews responded to cut gas lines in the past year, with fees totaling more than $334,000.

More than $67,000 of those bills has been paid, according to the latest records. Much of the rest has been forwarded to subcontractors or is tied up in contested cases, in which subcontractors claim a line was marked improperly or not at all.

Moline said Allo is working with its contractors, the city and local utilities to ensure safety, and the company has stopped working with contractors who didn’t meet Allo standards. He didn’t specify which contractors.

“We are in the midst of the most disruptive phase of network construction with extensive boring taking place in many areas of Lincoln,” Moline said. “So far, almost 9 million feet of fiber-optic cable have been installed in Lincoln. When incidents occur, we take them very seriously.”

Lincoln Fire and Rescue’s hazmat crews sometimes spend hours at the scene of a ruptured gas line before Black Hills workers are able to patch it up.

Black Hills often determines unsafe digging caused the break, said Brandy Johnson, a spokeswoman for the utility.

In other cases, mismarked - or unmarked - lines are to blame, said Lincoln Fire and Rescue Chief Micheal Despain said.

“When they mark it, it’s not an exact science,” he said.

During one recent call, investigators discovered digging crews had avoided a marked gas line when digging, only to hit another, unmarked line, the fire chief said.

No utility’s buried lines have been spared in the high volume of digging, said David Young, who oversees fiber infrastructure and right-of-way for Lincoln Public Works. For example, Lincoln Electric System has experienced an unusually high number of cut cables.

And digging crews have encountered some undetectable utility lines that weren’t on maps because they were installed in the early 1900s, Young said. Those lines lack technology designed to make them easier to locate from the surface.

The city, contractors and utility representatives routinely meet to discuss trends and safe practices.

After incidents, Nathan Stewart of Black Hills meets with contractors to learn from what happened. Those talks are always productive, he said.

When Allo’s installation concludes, public works and utility officials may have a more detailed understanding of what’s buried where across Lincoln, Kirkpatrick said.

“That map of what’s underground in Lincoln is going to be so much more precise.”

___

Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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