All Things Considered

Broadband installation the leading cause of underground infrastructure damage

Work area
Workers expose a section of pipeline in deep holes to repair a stretch of crude oil pipe near Cohasset.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News

The state is making unprecedented investments in broadband infrastructure. But as new lines get built underground — they’re causing damage to essential gas, electricity and other underground infrastructure.

That’s according to a brief released last week by North Star Policy Action, an independent research organization. Jake Schwitzer, the executive director of North Star, shared more of the findings and why some are raising concern.

The following is a transcription of the audio heard using the player above, lightly edited for clarity.

What’s the takeaway regarding damage caused by telecommunication lines or the construction of those lines?

Our research found really troubling amounts of damage being caused by broadband installers. What we found was the telecom industry accounted for 60 percent of all damage from directional drilling over the last three years. So, over 1,300 instances of damage caused by the telecom industry [and] they’re averaging 1.27 strikes per day to underground infrastructure.

Has any of this caused any explosions or property damage?

One of the most high-profile instances was back in 1998. A crew installing broadband cable for high-speed internet in downtown St. Cloud struck a gas line and the resulting explosion killed four people and destroyed six buildings.

And then in the last month, broadband drilling performed just blocks away from that same accident caused damage to an underground phone line. So, this problem is just repeating itself.

What’s not being done here?

Unlike other industries, these workers do not receive a high level of training, there aren’t high safety standards. Other industries like gas and electrical installation, where they’re doing the same type of work, they’re not having as many accidents. The accident rate is lower. And it’s because they’re much better trained.

And that’s the type of thing that we’re asking the state Legislature. They need to be better trained to make sure that they’re not causing these accidents and there needs to be higher safety standards for these workers.

Yeah, so it’s pretty simple training standards, safety standards. Similar things that are required of workers in similar industries.

We think that broadband installers should be held to the same standards as other workers working in these underground spaces, which are getting increasingly congested. And as a result, it’s more and more dangerous for folks working in those spaces.

We've actually talked to the Office of Pipeline Safety as well.

There isn't a strong enough reporting requirement. There is a requirement that if a gas line is struck, 911 has to be called. But if damage is done to electrical infrastructure or other infrastructure, often times that doesn't get reported to anyone at the state.

So, the data that we found is the first that I'm aware of that drills in by industry, that shows that broadband installers are often at fault here. And as that work increases, we fear we're going to see the accident numbers increase as well.

Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you think people should know about this?

The state has spent roughly $35 million a year on broadband infrastructure over the last 10 years. But an influx of federal money means that total is going to jump to over $130 million per year over the next five years.

So, as that work continues, now is the time to address the safety standards and the regulations to make sure that this is being done in a safe way.

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