HOUSTON – From Tomball to Pearland, and all over the greater-Houston area, AT&T is in the middle of a massive project to speed up its internet service. But as it digs and tunnels new cables for miles underground, it is leaving major damage in its wake.
KPRC2 News dug deeper to find out what you can do to protect your property.
Loud machinery and flags marking underground utilities are the sounds and signs of progress for AT&T's new Gigapower project. Contractors are installing fiber lines underground in neighborhood's all over greater Houston, but AT&T's progress is causing major setbacks for many families.
Joyce Skala's home in Cypress burned to the ground when contractors hit an electric line.
"Everything you look at when you leave your house in the morning, it was gone," Skala told KPRC2 News consumer expert Amy Davis two months after the Nov. 14 fire. "I have not heard from a soul -- not one. Not even a representative of a representative."
The day after Skala's fire, AT&T contractors hit an electric line in Shelli Moore's yard in another neighborhood. It was a fix she was told would cost about $2,000.
"That would break me," she said. "I have no idea where I would come up with that kind of money, but we have to have lights and heat," Moore said.
While she worried, workers kept digging, hitting a gas line two days later, and another one in the same neighborhood four days after that.
"People in my neighborhood are mad at AT&T," homeowner Pam Grossman said.
On Facebook, homeowners shared the same stories of AT&T from Sugar Land to Pearland: Breaking down fences and not replacing them, tearing up yards and cutting gas lines.
Contractors are using pneumatic missiles to bore through the ground several feet deep. Crews then push pliable piping all the way through the tunnel. The pipes run the length of several houses, up to a block, but hitting another line in its path can damage property several streets away.
"It wasn't even at my house," Skala said. "It started four houses down."
When fire marshals showed up to investigate, the report showed how contractors pointed fingers. The owner of Connect Links, subcontracted by NX Utilities and contracted by AT&T, told investigators, "There was no way that his company was involved in the fire."
"I couldn't get anywhere with AT&T," homeowner Anni Shugart said.
Her Cypress home was damaged in the electric surge that destroyed Skala's home. When she filed a claim with AT&T for her damages, she, like others, received a denial letter. AT&T told her to contact contractor NX Utilities instead.
Shugart finally filed with her own insurance company so she could start repairs, but now she's out her $4,500 deductible.
"Well, I hope I'll get it back eventually," she said. "It's a lot of money."
KPRC2 asked AT&T how many claims it has received and denied stemming from the fiber project. A representative declined to answer.
When asked who is ultimately responsible, real estate attorney Nikolas Spencer said, "All of them are."
Spencer said everyone from the guy with the shovel to AT&T's top brass bears some responsibility.
"If they know that this particular subcontractor is routinely causing fires at people's houses, or even just nicking the lines themselves, that's a repeated and dangerous situation that AT&T is on notice as happening. They're responsible for that," Spencer said.
If contractors have caused damage to your home and are giving you the runaround in paying for repairs, an attorney may be able to help. Homeowners looking to prevent problems before they happen can take advice from victims.
"I think I would definitely take a day off work and be here when they were in my backyard," Moore said.
If you can't be home, find a neighbor who can help monitor the progress.
Contractors are required to call 811 to have all underground lines marked before they begin digging, but you can call, too, to have gas, electric and phone lines marked at no charge.
Take pictures of your property before crews start digging in case they fail to put it back the way it was.
AT&T wouldn't talk with us on camera for this story, but a representative sent the following statement via email:
"We are aware of these issues and I’d refer you to NX Utilities, who can update you on the specific cases you mentioned. There is no one available for an on-camera interview. Below is our official company media statement in response to your inquiry and some background information about how we work to avoid construction issues and when they do occur work quickly to resolve them."
AT&T media statement:
“We have helped to position Houston as a gigabit city by bringing our fastest internet connections to more than 600,000 homes, apartments and small businesses in the area.
"Our goal is to minimize impact on residents before, during and after construction and to keep them informed through a variety of means throughout the network expansion process.
"If construction-related issues do occur, we work quickly to resolve and restore any impacts from our work.
"Some additional information on our process that may be helpful background:
- "We have dozens of supervisors and inspectors in the field to ensure our contractors are performing to our standard. We work closely with city officials to ensure our work is done in a timely and orderly fashion. Our contractors are trained to obtain proper permitting, closely follow local construction codes, and abide by rules governing rights-of-way and property easements.
- "It is our practice to place door hangers at each residence and place signage within subdivisions to identify what’s taking place and how to reach us in the event of an issue. We track damages and other issues and review performance with our contractors performing the work. As we identify poor performers, we cull those out.
- "Whether large or small, these damages impact the public and that is not lost on us. Damage can occur for a number of reasons, from contractor error to locates not being accurate. Before we begin a project, we talk with locating firms to provide them with some high-level visibility into where we anticipate completing work on a regular basis. Furthermore, as a part of the large project locate process, we typically provide 30-60 days’ notice versus the minimum 10 days.
- "We are constantly reviewing our processes and vendors to evaluate our efforts. We make changes as needed to ensure improvements in the process. We work with excavators, other utility owners, locaters, and state and local municipalities to identify best practices of our own forces, that of our contractors, and their sub-contractors."
KPRC2 reached out to NX Utilities. General Counsel Paul Kestenbaum sent the following message via email:
"Thank you for contacting NX Utilities. We take any complaints from residents in the areas where we work very seriously," Kestenbaum said in the email. "We work very hard to resolve them quickly in order to minimize any disruptions. We are working with multiple parties and their insurers to address all concerns as quickly as possible. NX Utilities has been and will continue to work within the requirements of all state and local laws that govern our industry.
"As to the specific cases you referenced:
- "Nov. 14: I suggest you review the Fire Marshal’s report and supplement on the fire to fully understand the causes of the damage. There were many companies involved and the investigators and insurance companies are working to determine the final report. We are in the process of working the claims we have received related to this incident as expeditiously as possible.
- "Nov. 15: This service line was not properly marked by the utility company. We have been in contact with the homeowner on a regular basis so we can complete restoration work once the weather improves. A temporary line to repair the issue was placed the day of the occurrence and the line was permanently repaired on Jan. 1/3/18. We previously had told the homeowner that we will cover the cost of the temporary connection and are waiting for submission of CPS invoices for the temporary line.
- "Nov. 17: This gas line was accidently (sic) struck by a shovel during the required hand dig process of locating the gas line. The proper authorities were notified immediately and service was restored within hours. The occurrence happened mid-day, although it did take until evening to complete the restoration.
- "Nov. 21: This damage resulted from utility service line not being properly marked, which public records filed by the power utility confirm. During the repair of the line, the power utility removed the fence and reported to us that it would put it back up upon completion of repairs. All other normal and customary restoration work was completed by NX the same day."