In a hurry to start excavating but don’t want to stop to call for utility line locates? Wait!
With construction season around the corner, utility companies and agencies are working to get the word out to excavators to call the 8-1-1 Alaska Digline before starting to dig.
Alaska has one of the highest rates of damage to underground utility lines from excavation, in fact, three times the national average for damage to natural gas lines, according to Lindsay Hobson, communications manager for Enstar Natural Gas Co.
Enstar Natural Gas Co., which serves more than 141,000 customers in Southcentral Alaska, wants to reduce that rate by raising awareness of the dangers of not requesting locates before digging and showing excavators how to dig safely around gas lines.
“Calling for locates before digging is not only a safety issue, it’s the law,” said Alicia Martinez, Enstar’s safety supervisor.
The Alaska Underground Utility Facilities Damage Prevention Act of 1998 requires that contractors and homeowners request a locate before starting to dig. In Alaska, it’s as simple as dialing 8-1-1, also known as Alaska Digline.
“Alaska Digline is the communication hub between excavators and buried facility owners,” said Louise Frost, president of Alaska Digline Inc.
Excavators need to call Alaska Digline two days before digging to allow each underground utility company time to schedule and complete the locates. That includes electric, water, sewer and communications as well as natural gas and hazardous liquids such as crude oil, gasoline and diesel. Once a location has been marked for underground facilities, those marks are valid for two weeks. After that time, excavators must request a re-locate for the area.
“Alaska Digline received 33,037 notices of excavation (tickets) last year resulting in 163,000 possible utility conflict notices sent to member utilities,” Frost said. That means that for every ticket taken, about five utility companies could be notified to mark their buried facilities.
“They provide this service free to the general public to help protect the general public,” Frost said.
So why is Alaska’s hit rate so high?
Rusty Allen, compliance engineer for Enstar, speculates that one reason might be miscommunication.
“It appears everyone always thinks someone else called in,” Allen said. “The guy operating the excavator thinks the project manager called, and the project manager thinks it’s the guy in the field,” he said.
In 2016, contractors were responsible for 81 percent of damages to underground gas lines, Allen said. To reduce those numbers, Enstar is focusing this year on getting pre-dig information to the person handling the excavator.
“That’s who, in the end, is the one who makes that decision to dig or not to dig, checks that there is yellow paint, and if not, he or she can stop the work and say, ‘We can’t do this.’ So with that in mind, we are working with the IBEW apprenticeship program, we’re looking at the Local 302 and are targeting the different training centers and the different organizations that can get the word to the person who is actually on the ground performing the excavation,” Martinez said.
In addition to the cost and disruption of services when lines are severed, there is also a public safety issue.
“And that’s what we’re trying to focus on,” Allen said. “We don’t want to go out and charge these guys an absurd amount of money to repair these lines because then they just won’t call us at all.
“We’re trying to have a good working relationship with everybody, and over the last year we really pushed to go out and speak to some of these contractors, talk to them about using 8-1-1 call system, how to excavate around our lines, what happens when you do touch our lines and in a worse case of a ruptured line, what do you do? Those guys are the solution, not the problem.”
Enstar has a goal of reducing the incidence of damaged lines by 10 percent per year, Martinez said. “Of course we want zero, but we also recognize that it might take some time, so we set our own goals,” she said.
Each year, Enstar is required to report its damaged line statistics to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
“We have pretty exact data each year, and that gives us measurement to track our success each year in terms of reducing that number,” Hobson said.
Repairing damaged lines is expensive. By law, utility companies can charge the company doing the excavation three times the cost of repairs.
“That’s a balance we have to strike,” Hobson said. “We want to not be necessarily punitive to the point it’s an inhibitor for people to call, but we do want to provide a disincentive for people who dig without locates.”
Enstar rarely charges triple damages, choosing instead to charge the company’s cost of repairs, Hobson said. “But that is an option at our disposal should something rise to that level,” she said.
Because the federal government finds Alaska one of seven states without an adequate one-call enforcement program, PHMSA assumed that role effective January 2016, according to Dave Mulligan, DOT community liaison.
Excavators who fail to comply with the one-call requirement may be subject to civil penalties of up to $205,638 for each violation for each day the violation continues, with a maximum civil penalty of about $2 million.
Enstar uses a proactive safety approach by issuing 8-1-1 commercials, gas meter stickers, banners and direct mailings emphasizing safe excavation requirements to contractors. Enstar is also co-sponsoring a Safe Digging Conference from 7:30 to 10 a.m. April 12 at the Embassy Suites in Anchorage. Admission is free and includes a buffet breakfast.
Martinez said the support of AGC of Alaska has been phenomenal.
“We’ve done Lunch and Learns with them,” she said. “They have asked us, and we are honored, to be part of their safety committee. So there are lots of opportunities, and they have certainly opened the doors for us to collaborate with them.”
Nancy Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in Moose Pass.