The state Department of Transportation will rely on the contractor building the Bonner Bridge to determine how its workers damaged a power cable late last month, forcing the evacuation of tourists from Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
PCL Civil Constructors will determine what happened at the bridge and why, and then share its findings with NCDOT, said Tim Hass, a spokesman for the department.
“That is generally the case when it is their equipment and their personnel, that we let a contractor do their own investigation first,” Hass said.
Hass said DOT will review PCL’s findings with an eye toward making sure nothing like this happens again, rather than to assess blame or penalties. He noted that PCL has taken responsibility for the incident.
“PCL has been very forthcoming and a very good partner, and we expect that cooperation to continue,” he said.
The underground cables that provide power to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands were damaged at about 4:30 a.m. on July 27 when workers doing cleanup work at the south end of the bridge drove a steel casing, or sleeve, into the ground. Workers use the casing to drive pilings, but in this case they were setting it aside, using a crane to put it into the ground the way someone might stick a shovel in the dirt when it’s not needed.
Hass said people from NCDOT were on hand to supervise work at the bridge, as they do on all large projects, but they were at the north end of the bridge, where construction was taking place at the time of the accident.
It took a week to restore full power to the islands and allow visitors to return during the height of the summer season.
It’s not clear who will perform PCL’s inquiry of the accident or how; a spokeswoman for the company said she could not provide information about it.
Meanwhile, one of the lawyers who is suing PCL says class-action lawsuits will be the best way to get a full understanding of what went wrong and who was at fault, including possibly DOT.
“The only way that all responsible parties can be identified is through the orderly process of factual discovery in a litigation overseen by a judge,” said Robert Zaytoun of the Zaytoun Law Firm in Raleigh. “In the discovery process, parties are compelled to provide information about their conduct.”
Zaytoun and Bayboro attorney Steven Lacy say they have filed suits in state court in Hyde County and in federal court. Another law firm, Wallace and Graham of Salisbury, announced it had filed suit against PCL in Dare County.
PCL is trying to steer visitors, residents and businesses of the Outer Banks away from lawsuits by giving them a chance to file a claim of damages caused by the outage, including lost income and evacuation expenses. The forms can be found at outerbanks.pcl.com/.
But Zaytoun says the claims process will be limited to losses people can quantify, and won’t compensate people for less tangible costs such as anxiety, stress and inconvenience. He said the claims process would also cut short a legal process that would help identify “the full extent of responsible parties.” Though NCDOT is not named in his lawsuit, he said, it doesn’t mean it won’t be eventually.
“Through the discovery process we will determine the extent of DOT’s role in overseeing the bridge project,” he said.
The accident took place during construction of a new 2.8-mile Bonner Bridge that is expected to begin carrying N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet in the fall of 2018. The $246 million bridge will replace the existing one that was supposed to be good for only 30 years when it opened in 1963; DOT says the new bridge will last 100 years.