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Duluth Steam fires back at Qwest

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news Two Harbors, 55616
Two Harbors Minnesota 109 Waterfront Dr. 55616

The lines have been drawn and neither side is budging. Duluth Steam Cooperative has issued its rebuttal to a claim for damages filed by Qwest after fiber optic lines were melted under a Duluth street in January. The failure cut internet, phone, and cell coverage to most of the North Shore from Knife River to Grand Portage.

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Jerry Pelofske, in a letter sent Friday to county commissioners in Lake and Cook counties, repeated what he has said since Qwest claimed heat and steam from a steam pipe failure caused the damage. "We do know with certainty that there were no high-pressure steam leaks which could have caused the damage," Pelofske wrote in the letter.

He also responded to Qwest claims that there had been no warnings in the past about the installation of lines near steam plant works. He produced a letter from 1996 sent to US West, the forerunner of Qwest, about the installation of conduits for phone lines at the same location at Second Avenue East and Second Street where the January failure occurred. The warning from Duluth Steam says the US West contractor "laid the conduit system above our steam main without any insulation to protect the plastic conduit." The letter mentions "problems they have had in the past when crossing steam mains without any protection."

Qwest Minnesota President John Stanoch has said the lines that failed in January had been in place since 1987.

Pelofske wrote Friday that the failure was "due to, in part, the failure of Qwest or its contractors to appropriately install or adequately insulate the conduit in which its fiber optic lines are contained."

Qwest's insurance representative filed an official claim March 15 with Duluth Steam's Western National Mutual Insurance Company. In its account, Qwest states that trouble began under the street the Sunday, Jan. 24, before the Tuesday outage when its monitoring system detected a failed line. Qwest said single-line failures are routine and it rerouted service to a spare line within the same cable. On Tuesday, more lines failed and the total outage occurred.

Qwest, in its report, says Duluth Steam workers were in the area of the line damage a day after the failure and told Qwest workers it was repairing a pressure valve leak 10 feet away from the damaged Qwest lines.

Pelofske said the manholes for Qwest and Duluth Steam are separate and the work done by the cooperative was on a condensation line that transfers water to the Duluth sewer system. "The steam arising from this manhole was not steam arising from a leak of a high-pressure, high-temperature steam main."

Qwest contended that the heat and steam damage occurred "most likely over a period of time." It said more work would need to be done to determine how "such unusual heat and steam could occur in a manhole physically separated from Duluth Steam facilities located approximately 10 feet away."

Qwest reports that the outage it suffered is "extremely unusual" and that it has "never experienced a similar issue" in Duluth. Qwest ended up replacing 2,200 feet of fiber optic to get service up again.

Qwest contends that it was Duluth Steam's responsibility to warn it about the heat and steam that caused the damage and will bring claims of trespass, nuisance, negligent maintenance, defective design, failure to warn, and "strict liability."

Qwest's Stanoch told county commissioners in mid-March that in the "next few weeks" he would talk with county, law enforcement, and other officials to "answer any questions relating to this outage and our steps to minimize the possibility of a future outage." He met with one commissioner from each county and Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson late in February and promised more meetings by the end of March. A Qwest spokeswoman at its main office in Minneapolis said Tuesday that Stanoch is still finalizing his plans for a trip to the North Shore.

The fiber optic line break happened just before 11 a.m. Jan. 26 and service wasn't fully restored until after midnight. It affected customers from Two Harbors to Grand Portage who were left without internet, phone or cell coverage.

Public safety officials scrambled to find alternative ways to communicate, including two-way and ham radios. Business owners complained about lost business in letters to commissioners in Lake and Cook counties and residents brought up fears of not getting help in case of a medical emergency. There were even concerns raised about national security considering Cook County is adjacent to the international border with Canada.

Users on the North Shore were under the assumption that Qwest had a backup line in case of such line breaks. Stanoch said there was technically a backup line but it was damaged along with the main line in January.

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