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ND regulators fine CenturyLink after 25,701 One Call violations that company blames on password glitch

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, right, speaks on a pipeline issue as commissioners Brian Kroshus, left, and Randy Christmann, center, listen on in the PSC hearing room. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune file photo

BISMARCK — North Dakota utility regulators approved a $25,000 fine against CenturyLink Wednesday, June 13, after the telecommunications company violated the state's One Call law a whopping 25,701 times in less than five months.

The state's excavation notice system is meant to prevent diggers from striking underground utilities. But a settlement agreement reached between CenturyLink and the Public Service Commission said the company frequently failed to provide a "positive response" to the One Call notification center after it marked an excavation area or found there were no facilities in the area.

A change in state law requires owners of underground facilities to send positive responses to the notification center, which then alerts excavators. In early December, about four months after that new law took effect, the president of the North Dakota One Call Board filed a complaint against CenturyLink.

CenturyLink then discovered an incorrect password was responsible for their positive responses being rejected, according to the company's response. The settlement agreement states the company violated the positive response provision 25,701 times between Aug. 1 and Dec. 20.

"They were notified on multiple occasions that they weren't doing it in compliance with the law," said Victor Schock, a public utility analyst for the PSC.

Kent Blickensderfer, the company's government relations director in North Dakota and South Dakota, said CenturyLink responded to excavators itself and no facilities were damaged because of the glitch.

"Where we went sideways was that it didn't necessarily get recorded as a record with the One Call center," he said. "As with everything that's new, I guess you can have glitches. But hopefully now that's all behind us."

Of the $25,000 fine that the three-member Public Service Commission approved unanimously Wednesday, $15,000 was suspended on the condition that CenturyLink doesn't violate the positive response law again within five years.

Commissioner Brian Kroshus, a Republican, called the fine "significant" and said regulators wanted to "send a message that you have to follow through with positive response." CenturyLink could have faced a maximum fine of $25,000 per violation under state law, which would have totaled $642.5 million, or almost 34 times the PSC's two-year budget.

"I don't think we would have gotten a consent agreement," Commission Chairman Randy Christmann, a Republican, said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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