811 averts underground utility disasters

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Atmosenergy.com

via 811 averts underground utility disasters, clarionledger.com

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As I write this, I’ve been watching a crew working near my front yard, preparing for a fiber-optic cable being laid in our neighborhood. All around are colorful little flags, and the sidewalk, streets and even the grass are crisscrossed with spray-painted lines in various colors.

A large truck is parked in front of my house, and the crew has been using a high-pressure water stream to rapidly dig a hole near the street. As the workers blast the dirt and gravel, it’s all sucked into a large tank mounted on the truck and results in a deep hole with clean sides in just a few minutes. Soon, another crew will be pushing pipes through the ground to carry the new cables, and once the work is done, passersby won’t be able to tell all this activity has taken place.

It may seem tranquil on the surface, but below ground it’s a different story. Starting just inches below ground level is a maze of water and sewer lines, electrical lines, cable and fiber, telephone cables and other types of buried infrastructure used to provide services to our homes and businesses. Placing utilities underground has many advantages. Besides avoiding the eyesore of having pipes and wires running through the landscape, burying them can also keep them safe from damage, and keep us safe from them and their sometimes-dangerous cargo.

In most cases, this arrangement works pretty well. But occasionally, someone hits a buried pipe, wire or cable, with potentially deadly consequences. The Common Ground Alliance, an organization representing the underground-utility industry and which advocates for safe digging practices, reported in 2015 that 421 people had died and 1,906 people had been injured in the preceding two decades from striking underground utilities. The incidents had a financial cost as well, resulting in $1.7 billion in property damage.

The alliance produces an annual report called DIRT, short for Damage Information Reporting Tool. The report compiles data on damage to underground utilities throughout the U.S. and Canada. The most recent report (covering 2015) was released in October, and noted an encouraging trend: Requests to locate underground utilities were up significantly during 2015, while estimated damages from hitting them were down.

That good news is likely the result of increased public awareness. Here in Mississippi, a nonprofit organization called Mississippi 811 has the job of ensuring that damage doesn’t happen. They’re the folks you (hopefully) call before you put a shovel in the ground. 811 President Sam Johnson told me that, in the past year, 648 reports of underground utility damages have been reported in the state. That number is nearly 20 percent lower than the previous one-year period. In the same period, requests to locate buried utilities has increased significantly. “Hopefully, the increase in locate requests is an indicator that the public is paying attention,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his staff have been working hard to get the message out. 811 runs awareness ads on statewide radio and cable networks, as well as billboards, and sends out instructors to conduct awareness activities and train digging crews. Those efforts are augmented by utility companies that conduct their own efforts through ads, billboards and other awareness programs.

Many people wouldn’t think twice about digging a hole in their yard to plant a tree or put in a flower bed, but even digging a few inches with a shovel can sever a power line, cable or gas line. A free 811 call can not only keep you from getting yelled at by the neighbors when you cut their cable TV, it could keep you from being electrocuted by cutting into a power line or blowing up your neighborhood after rupturing a gas line. It can also save you money because you may have to pay for the damage, and you could be subject to fines under the new state law as well. (If you are a contractor and don’t make the call, your insurance company will probably not cover you for the damages.)

When you call, a crew will be dispatched to mark underground utilities running through your property. Crews will use paint and/or flags to mark where utilities are buried. Each type of utility has its own color: red for electrical lines, yellow for potentially dangerous or toxic materials such as natural gas, petroleum or steam; orange for telecommunications lines; blue for water lines; green for sewer lines; purple for slurry pipelines; pink for temporary survey markings; and white for areas with proposed excavations.

There is also a lot more at stake now if you don’t call. A new law signed last year by Gov. Phil Bryant will authorize legal penalties to people who violate the state’s digging laws and cause damage to buried utilities. The law authorizes a fine, ranging from $500 to $5,000 per incident.

“Anytime you hear a friend or neighbor say something about a project that will involve any excavation, be sure to remind them to call 811 at least two working days before they start their project,” he noted. “If you see someone that you care about, excavating but you don’t see any signs that the utilities have been marked (flags, paint, etc.), ask them if they have taken advantage of the free service to have the utilities marked. It’s the law, and it’s just the right and safe thing to do.”

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