HAMILTON COUNTY, Ind. -- State regulators released a scathing report Tuesday, criticizing Indiana-based cable and internet provider MetroNet, as well as its subcontractors for hitting gas lines in Hamilton County.
The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission launched an investigation last month after 20 reports of damage to gas lines in Fishers and Carmel.
Tuesday, IURC’s Pipeline Safety Division released the report and blamed MetroNet’s excavators for 10 of the gas line incidents.
They cited the subcontractors for 10 violations including using mechanized equipment within two feet of a market line and failure to plan in use of hand tools.
MetroNet contractors could face varying amounts of fines of up to $10,000 for the gas line hits.
The IURC report also revealed all of the subcontractors used by MetroNet are from out-of-state, and of the six under investigation, only one had legally registered to do business in the state of Indiana.
Failing to register with the Indiana Secretary of State’s office can result in a $10,000 fine per company, and the matter has been referred to the Indiana Attorney General for review.
The IURC report also criticized MetroNet for withholding information from state regulators, including a full list of contractors excavating in Indiana.
MetroNet’s counsel declined to provide a list as well as a redacted sample contract, stating that it was “competitively sensitive information.”
Although Fishers and Carmel had issued no-dig orders to MetroNet last month, work continued in the neighboring City of Westfield.
On Friday, a MetroNet subcontractor damaged a gas line at 121 S. Walnut Street in Westfield, which resulted in the evacuation of nearby homes and businesses.
“I had a fireman escort me out of my house,” said Stacey Young, who was in the neighborhood when the gas line was damaged. “It smelled of sewer gas.”
IURC is investigating the September 8 Westfield incident, and regulators believe the natural gas seeped into the sewer systems which is “extremely dangerous and often leads to explosions, with injuries and loss of life,” read the report.
Young said she had no idea the incident was that serious, because no one told her.
“We were all just hanging out in a nearby parking lot,” said Young.
Call 6 Investigates contacted MetroNet for a response to the IURC’s report.
“MetroNet takes the IURC’s findings about our contractors seriously, and we support any efforts to improve underground construction, as our goal is always to protect public safety,” said John Cinelli, president of MetroNet. “As a result, we are voluntarily pausing all underground construction in Central Indiana while we conduct further contractor training. We are committed to providing a world-class fiber optic infrastructure in Indiana, and building it in a responsible manner.”
State Senator Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis) said the state does not have the power to shut down MetroNet.
“It’s total carelessness,” said Merritt. “These people don’t get it. They don’t get safety.”
Merritt plans to champion state legislation that would allow utilities to be held accountable for the actions of their contractors.
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“They have created a situation where we will have to dig into the state code and change it,” said Merritt. “I want to give the local communities some power, and I want IURC to have some strength.”
Merritt admitted the IURC has no teeth, but said it’s a valuable tool to draft legislation for the upcoming session.
“The bottom line is we need transparency and we’re going to have a piece of legislation that’s going to demand that, so we know where everyone is digging in the state and we know who is digging in the state,” said Merritt.
Merritt said communities like Fishers should be careful when it comes to using MetroNet.
“I would caution any local community against dealing with MetroNet,” said Merritt.
The cities of Fishers and Carmel have not yet determined whether they will allow MetroNet to proceed with work in their communities.
“Before the City of Carmel can allow MetroNet and its contractors back to work in Carmel, we need assurances that any work done in our city will be accomplished in a more prudent and careful manner,” said Nancy Heck, spokesperson for the City of Carmel. “Neighboring communities in Hamilton County are discussing municipal legislation that will create ordinances giving our cities the ability to fine MetroNet or others requesting to work in our Right-of-Way areas when they violate certain criteria set forth in the new local legislation. Among the items requested in the new laws will be assurances that there is a safety plan in place, that contractors will be legally registered to do work in Indiana, that yard and landscaping restoration will be completed in a timely fashion and that contractors entering onto our Right-of-Way or private property within the city limits will behave respectfully to persons and property. Details of other requirements will be finalized after further discussion with the affected communities in Hamilton County.”
The City of Fishers’ legal and permitting teams are currently reviewing the IURC investigation.
“Our number one priority is the safety of our citizens and the final corrective actions will reflect that,” said Ashley Elrod, spokesperson for the City of Fishers. “The No-Dig order is still in place until corrective actions are in place and we can ensure Metronet’s ability to safely proceed with construction.”
The Underground Plant Protection Advisory Committee is expected to determine the fine amounts for MetroNet’s contractors at a meeting on September 19.
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