Qwest makes formal claim for line damagesKeeps blame on Duluth Steam for damaged lines under Duluth Street.
Qwest Communications has officially filed a damage claim with Duluth Steam Cooperative’s insurance company, stating its “facilities caused Qwest’s outage” that left virtually the entire North Shore without internet, cell phone or landline phone coverage for more than 12 hours Jan. 26.
A monetary figure has not been determined.
Qwest Minnesota President John Stanoch sent a letter to Lake and Cook County commissioners Monday repeating his company’s allegation that a steam leak damaged fiber optic cable under Second Street and Second Avenue West in Duluth. Stanoch included a letter dated March 15 from Qwest to Western National Mutual Insurance Company, Duluth Steam’s representative, outlining why it believes the steam company is liable for damages.
In the report, Qwest states that trouble began under the street the Sunday 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.
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Duluth Steam Manager Jerry Pelofske has said repeatedly that there wasn’t a steam leak in the area of the fiber optic lines. He said Tuesday he couldn’t comment on the claim because he hadn’t read it and deferred to Western National’s Gary Zylstra, who did not return a call to his Edina claims office seeking comment.
Qwest’s corporate attorney, Jason Topp, who wrote the claim letter, said he couldn’t elaborate on it. He said he couldn’t recall any other claims filed in the past against Duluth Steam.
“We get one every five or six years when something happens to their lines,” Pelofske said earlier this month after a warning came to his office about Qwest’s intention to file a claim. He said the cooperative has never had to pay claims because the fault is in the installation of fiber lines too near the heat of steam pipes.
Qwest, in its report, says Duluth Steam workers were in the area of the line damage the day after the outage and told Qwest workers it was repairing a pressure valve leak 10 feet away from the damaged Qwest lines.
Qwest contends 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. The fiber that was damaged had been in place since 1987. 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 made it clear who it faults for the damage. “There can be no doubt that if Duluth Steam exposes physical facilities … 10 feet away to extreme heat and humidity, that the Duluth Steam plant has either failed in some fashion, been improperly maintained, or has been poorly designed.”
Qwest disputes the claim by Duluth Steam that it had sent warnings in the past about fiber optic lines too close to steam pipes. Qwest says there was “physical separation” between the fiber optic and the steam facilities. It says it has no record of Duluth Steam warnings and hasn’t received any copies of such communication after requesting them from Duluth Steam.
Qwest said it will review Duluth Steam records to find out how “its plant could have caused so much damage.”
Duluth Steam, according to city policy, is responsible for any steam or heat damage claims under city streets. The City of Duluth claims no liability. Qwest is allowed to run lines under streets where, under state law, it is considered public right-of-way, much like lines on poles above the streets.
Stanoch told county commissioners that he will schedule meetings in the “next few weeks” to 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.
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.
A 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.