Verizon's large-scale program to install fiber-optic cable is rolling across Northern Virginia into Fairfax County and rapidly developing parts of Loudoun County. With it comes the possibility this summer of churned-up yards and ruptured gas, electric and other underground utility lines.
The $3 billion, 14-state project, which began last summer in Northern Virginia, has drawn increased attention from Virginia regulators because of problems in Fairfax. 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, recalling that only a couple of neighbors on his street had 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 fire truck came to fix it."
Harry J. Mitchell, a spokesman for Verizon, emphasized the benefits of a fiber-optic network: high-speed Internet and, eventually, video services. Mitchell said the company was meeting weekly with other utilities to avoid further problems. He said 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. "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 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, a cable company, has complained to the state fewer than a dozen times about damage from the Verizon work. The Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative has filed more than 25 such complaints. Bob Bisson, vice president of electrical system development for NOVEC, said that there had been 17 power outages related to the Verizon work in Fairfax in the past several weeks.
In Loudoun, about 80 residents of the Forest Ridge community in Sterling met with Verizon officials and local elected officials June 2 to complain about digging that began in March.
Those in attendance included Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) and Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax).
Bob Embling, president of the Forest Ridge homeowners association, said a number of residents were upset that Verizon's contractor had dug more than 15 feet into their properties when they had expected the utility to use only an eight-foot right of way. In addition, Embling said, contractors had dug up pavement from some driveways, then patched those areas rather doing a complete repaving, leaving a number of driveways in the neighborhood "two-toned."
Mark Stephens, who lives on Caragana Court, said that after cutting open a three-foot-wide section of his driveway, workers replaced it with temporary asphalt that soon began sinking into potholes. In April, Verizon contractor Ivy H. Smith offered to replace the bottom of the driveway, but Stephens refused. He said the work would not fix cracks that extended several feet into his original driveway. Stephens estimated the damage to his property at $1,400 and said he had received little response to phone calls he made to complain.
Another concern, Embling said, was that construction on the neighborhood's common area threatened at least three 100-year-old oaks. He said the contractor agreed to repair or replace the oaks for the next two years if there were problems.
"They cut through the roots, ripped right through them," said George Jahnigen, vice president of the homeowners association.
"This fiber-optic cable we're looking forward to, but it's come at a cost," he said.
Massoud Tahamtani, director of utility and railroad safety for the State Corporation Commission, said that his office had met with Verizon and Smith, its main contractor, to monitor the work and discuss problems.
Verizon has about 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 in April.
Depending on the terrain and the location, laying fiber-optic cable can involve mechanical excavation or 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 about 85 percent of the damage has involved hand digging. Homeowners who have complaints or questions should call the phone number for the contractor printed on the notice all homeowners are supposed to receive a few days before work begins, Mitchell said.
Tahamtani noted that the damage, although related to the Verizon project, was not always 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 upswing, "we're trying very hard to keep it under control," he said.
Staff writer Lila de Tantillo contributed to this report.