Minn. City Cracks Down on Contractors


Regulators in St. Cloud, Minn., hope pending changes in the
community's rights-of-way policies will prevent the kind of trenching miscue caused
by a utility overbuilder's subcontractor last December.

That accident triggered a downtown explosion that killed
four people.

The city will hold a public hearing this week on new
standards that will apply to Seren Innovations Inc. and any other service provider that
digs into streets to construct its plant.

Seren, a spinoff of Northern States Power Co., is
franchised to build about 100 miles of plant in the town to offer video, Internet and
other services in competition with Bresnan Communications.

Last December, a subcontractor purportedly complied with
state law and called the state's toll-free, call-before-you-dig number, but still hit
an underground gas main. Before the gas company could shut it down, there was an explosion
that killed four and injured 15.

Seren changed subcontractors after the deadly blast, but
other contractors made nonlethal gas-line strikes, as well.

City officials attributed the trenching errors to maps made
during a monopoly era, when drafters did not anticipate their use by anyone but the power

Since the December explosion, the city has changed its
policy to require that diggers call 911 every time there is a breach. Previous policy
required that only the utility be notified so it could shut down the leak.

Following that change, the city has received notice of 22
gas-line strikes by Seren subcontractors since August 1998.

St. Cloud city engineer Steve Gaetz said Seren and parent
NSP have already changed their method of operation to rectify the problem. However, the
city will change its regulations.

"[Going back] 10 years ago, there were only two
companies -- NSP and AT&T [Corp.]. Now, deregulation has spawned a plethora of
competitors. There's greatly increased potential for conflicts. We need to protect
the integrity of our streets," Gaetz said.

After the deadly explosion, Seren completely shut down its
digging for two weeks. Subcontractors were retrained, and Seren "took extreme
measures to reduce the threat and make the situation less volatile," Gaetz said. The
city standards are similar to the actions Seren and NSP took.

Every morning, diggers meet with gas or other utility
locators. Also, redundancy has been built into the location process, and utilities are
called to install temporary emergency shutoffs to deal more quickly with breaches.

Seren spokesman Pat Petschell could not comment
specifically on the trenching incident, citing pending litigation. According to published
reports, the state Office of Pipeline Safety is still investigating the explosion, and NSP
can be held responsible for any negligent acts by its agents.

The disaster slowed down the cable/Internet installation,
but crews are back on track, utilizing strict safety standards, Petschell said. He would
not give service-penetration figures, citing competitive pressures, but he indicated that
bad press is not keeping subscribers away.