WECT Investigates: Penalties for contractor who ruptured utility lines, snarled traffic

Penalties for contractor who ruptured utility lines, snarled traffic

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - If you had the misfortune of being on the local roadways last Friday in northern New Hanover County, you probably already know there were major traffic delays. Construction crews working on the Market Street overpass at Military Cutoff Road ruptured a gas line on Friday.

The repair work took hours and resulted in a partial road closure that put traffic at a virtual standstill. The 7000 block of Market Street, as well as northbound Military Cutoff Road onto Market Street, were closed. School buses were late bringing children home. One viewer called to say he missed a funeral because of all the traffic tie-ups.

Hours after the roads reopened, some businesses were still feeling the effects of the gas leak. Smithfield’s BBQ in Ogden could not use their fryers during the dinner rush because they didn’t have gas. Without the fryers, they were unable to serve fried chicken, french fries, hush puppies, or other menu staples to customers. So the normally busy restaurant was virtually empty on Friday night.

Just a day earlier, the same contractor ruptured a water main at the construction site. While traffic was not impacted, the water main break prompted a boil water advisory for more than a dozen businesses Thursday, including restaurants trying to operate in the Food Lion Shopping Center at Gordon and Military Cutoff roads.

Brooklyn Pizza owner Brad Sywolski said they had to close their dine-in service on Thursday due to water issues, and on Friday, they lost business because customers couldn’t get to them, and their delivery drivers were stuck in traffic.

“We have no repercussions for it. It’s not like DOT’s gonna hand me a check. I can’t go to the guys in the hard hats and say, ‘Who’s got the check book?’ So there’s really no recourse for us to get anything back for the business that was lost for those two days,” Sywolski explained.

Even before the utility line breaks, Ogden business owners said the construction and road closures have made it more difficult for customers to get to them. Business owners can file a tort claim to try to recoup their losses following the utility disruptions, but as a practical matter, it may not be worth their time and money.

According to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority officials, the DOT’s contractor struck a 12-inch water main with a piece of heavy equipment on Thursday. The pipe was already uncovered at the time of the accident. DOT officials believe the contractors were trying to work on some neighboring utility lines when they inadvertently struck the water main.

CFPUA says that contractors call 811 before beginning a project that involves digging. The North Carolina 811 call center opens a ticket based on the contractor’s request, and utility providers respond based on the request’s urgency. The 811 ticket for the Military Cutoff Road extension is open and ongoing, and CFPUA staff regularly visit the worksite to mark the location of water and sewer lines.

“If we determine that the contractor was at fault for a line break, we send them an invoice for the repair costs including time and materials,” CFPUA Spokeswoman Cammie Bellamy explained. “We plan to send the contractor an invoice in this instance once the final costs of the repair have been determined.”

According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Balfour Beatty Infrastructure is the prime contractor on the Military Cutoff Extension project. Published reports indicate the company does public and private construction projects across the country, including a $167 million dollar U.S. 70 Havelock Bypass project currently underway in Carteret and Craven counties.

Balfour Beatty is being paid $96 million for the overpass construction in New Hanover County.

“Typically, an investigation of the damage is performed and the owner of the utility summarizes their costs due to the damage/interruption of service,” DOT Engineer Alex Stewart explained of what will happen next. “This investigation/cost is settled between the utility owner and the responsible party/parties that performed the alleged damage if the contractor is found to be at fault under the 811 legal requirements.”

While the contractors clearly damaged the lines, it is possible they were not properly marked. That is what investigators will seek to determine before assigning blame and before anyone is charged for the damages.

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