Fiber-Optic Cable Work Has Officials on Watch for Problems

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 9, 2005

As Verizon's large-scale program to install fiber-optic cable rolls across Northern Virginia, with it comes the possibility this summer of more churned-up yards and ruptured gas, electric and other underground utility lines.

The $3 billion, 14-state project, which began last summer in this area, has drawn increased attention from Virginia regulators because of problems in Fairfax County. There, residents such as Howie Lind of McLean have come home to huge piles of dirt on their landscaped lawns and sometimes potentially more serious situations.

"I was like, 'What's going on with this?' " Lind said, adding that only a couple of neighbors on his street received the required notice of impending work in January. "They hit a gas line in one of the yards on a Friday afternoon. Luckily a kid was coming home from school, smelled the gas and called his mom, and a firetruck came to fix it."

Harry J. Mitchell, a spokesman for Verizon, emphasized the benefits of a fiber-optic network: high-speed Internet and, ultimately, video services.

Verizon meets weekly with other utilities to go over plans and avoid further problems, Mitchell said, adding that the company has 64 employees working with contractors to make sure they're trained properly, to investigate problems and to monitor work.

"It's a tremendous undertaking," Mitchell said of the fiber-optic installations. "Our aim is to do it safely and unobtrusively, and by and large we're doing a very good job of it. . . . We know accidents will happen, but we're focusing on prevention and, when an accident happens, learning from it." He said that such accidents are often the fault of another utility.

Despite efforts to forestall problems, there has been a steady stream of complaints.

In January, the month the gas line was hit in McLean, the State Corporation Commission received 38 reports of damage to gas lines -- mainly in Fairfax -- from utilities, as required by law. There were 23 reports of damage in February, 12 in March and 34 in April.

Comcast Corp., a cable company and a Verizon competitor in the Reston area, has complained to the state fewer than a dozen times about damage from Verizon's work. The Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative has filed more than 25 such complaints.

Bob Bisson, vice president of electrical system development for the cooperative, said there had been 17 power outages related to the Verizon work in Fairfax County in the past several weeks.

Massoud Tahamtani, director of utility and railroad safety for the State Corporation Commission, said his office has met with representatives for Verizon and its main contractor, Ivy H. Smith Co., to monitor the work and discuss problems.

Verizon now has approximately 2,000 crews across the state doing fiber-optic work, Tahamtani said. The commission has two trainers assigned to work with Verizon contractors and four or five inspectors making surprise visits to work sites, he said.

"We've told them they need to do everything possible to make sure the damage is down," he said, noting that the number of damage reports in May might be higher than for April.

Depending on the terrain and the location, laying fiber-optic cable can involve mechanical excavation, or the more laborious and time-consuming hand digging required if the site is within two feet of a gas line.

Verizon also uses a quicker, less obtrusive technique known as "missling," whereby a cylinder of steel is launched from one point to another to create an underground path for the cable, Mitchell said.

He said that about 85 percent of the damage has involved hand digging. Homeowners who have complaints or questions should call the contractor phone number printed on the notice all homeowners are supposed to receive a few days before work begins, Mitchell said.

Tahamtani noted that the damage, while related to the Verizon project, has not always been Verizon's fault: An investigation of eight incidents last July, for instance, found that half were the fault of the contractor, one was the fault of the locator -- in this case, Washington Gas had not marked its lines properly -- and three were "nobody's fault."

"Everyone did everything they could, and there was damage anyway," Tahamtani said. "It was just an accident."

Still, with the summer construction season here, and with reports of damage seemingly on the rise again, he said, "We're trying very hard to keep it under control."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company