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When X doesn’t mark the spot

Mike Sprtel, a T1 locator for SM&P Utilities Resources Inc., Wauwatosa, paints lines on the street to mark the location of the information lines under the median near the intersection of Juneau Avenue and Market Street in Milwaukee on March 27.   Photo by John Krejci

Mike Sprtel, a T1 locator for SM&P Utilities Resources Inc., Wauwatosa, paints lines on the street to mark the location of the information lines under the median near the intersection of Juneau Avenue and Market Street in Milwaukee on March 27. Photo by John Krejci

Sean Ryan
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It seemed the contractor was to blame. At least that’s where the evidence pointed when the Office of Pipeline Safety received a report about a gas line that was ruptured during an excavation project, said Walt Kelly, who directed the Minnesota agency from 1991 to 1994.

The utility that owned the pipe sent out a locating company to mark the ground so diggers would know where the gas lines were buried, he said. There didn’t seem to be any good excuse for the contractor to hit the line.

But new evidence emerged when state investigators arrived at the project site. They discovered the markings painted on the ground to identify the gas line’s location were wrong. The markings were a few feet away from the true location of the underground pipe, Kelly said.

Investigators determined the wire on the pipe that is detectable by locator wands was faulty.

When wands didn’t detect the gas pipe that appeared on the utility maps, the locators guessed and marked the ground where they thought the pipe was, Kelly said.

The lessons to be learned?

“Number one: Keep it open; don’t form a judgment right away,” Kelly said about investigating utility hits. “Number two: It can be damn subtle. It’s not always black and white.”

Ready for the regulation

Minnesota created a state agency to investigate utility hits and enforce safety rules 18 years ago.
Today, Wisconsin contractors are asking for something similar.

Excavators would accept heavier regulation if it means their workers are safer, said Steven Olson, human resources director for McHugh Excavating and Plumbing Inc., Onalaska.

“I don’t know if you are ever in favor of more regulation, but kind of a fair system that takes into account all parties involved I think would be beneficial to everyone,” Olson said. “The way we stand now, there”s really nothing like that, and, as a contractor, it can get frustrating.”

The April 2, 2008, explosion that blew up the First Baptist Church and two houses in Oconomowoc demonstrates the severity of this issue. While installing a storm sewer in Oconomowoc, Dorner Inc.,

Luxemburg, used a backhoe to push down a natural gas line that utility locators had not marked, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports. The pipe was taken out of service at least 30 years ago, but the utility that owned it did not disconnect it from the main gas line, which left it vulnerable.

After the accident OSHA cited Dorner for not safeguarding employees working around the underground pipes and for not removing workers after the gas was detected. The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin investigated We Energies and ordered the utility to improve its systems for mapping and providing construction documents to locators.

At least 13 states monitor digging

The PSC enforcement was in compliance with federal laws that regulate gas utilities, said Dan Sage, assistant administrator in the PSC gas and energy division. Wisconsin statutes don’t allow state agents to enforce laws for excavating around utilities, he said.

Sage said the idea of creating a state enforcement program has only come up informally.

“There’s obviously concerns, because this is something that always comes up”. Who’s responsible for it? What can be done?” Sage asked. “We’ve never got to the point where we’ve said, ‘˜How would we do this and what would it require?”

Kelly said states are asking for trouble if they don’t have enforcement programs that regulate utilities, locators and contractors.

“My feeling is lack of enforcement will definitely get you more people killed and more property damages,” he said.

Kelly counted 13 states that have enforcement programs. Minnesota has eight inspectors that investigate excavation projects that receive complaints. It levies fines of up to $500 per day for violations such as digging without first locating utilities, digging too close to exposed pipes or improperly marking underground lines.

Virginia’s enforcement program operates differently. A panel of regulated companies ‘”contractors, locators, utilities and one-call centers ‘” decide whether violations have occurred and determine who should be penalized, said Rick Pevarski, vice chairman of the panel, called the Damage Prevention Advisory Commission.

“Dropped our damages in half,” Pevarski said. “The laws have been in effect for almost 15 years. The awareness level is so much higher when all stakeholder groups realize there is accountability and when there is damage it is investigated.

“Nobody wants to be sitting in front of the advisory commission.”

Support from all parties is key

The Wisconsin region of the Common Ground Alliance, plans to send a letter to the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office asking it to join the alliance’s discussion of how to enact an enforcement program in Wisconsin, said Don Coe, We Energies supervisor of facility location. Coe said he likes Virginia’s system because the regulated companies make enforcement decisions, rather than an outsider hired by the state.

“We’ve been wrestling with trying to figure out: How do we come up with an effective compliance enforcement program under current law in Wisconsin?” Coe said.

The Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association will consider supporting an enforcement program later this year when it lobbies the state to improve on the statutes regulating excavation around utilities, said WUCA lobbyist Brian Mitchell. But he cautioned that any effort to create an enforcement program will fail unless all of the regulated groups approve the plan.

Kelly said Minnesota was able to create a program because all involved parties approved.

“œIt had to be totally open, transparent, above the board, no hidden agendas,”he said. “What’s right, not who’s right.”

These days, when a contractor hits a pipe, it usually receives a bill from the utility that owned the line, and then lawyers start haggling over the cost and whether the builder is responsible, Olson said.

“We hit things on occasion,” he said, “and there’s always the question of: Was it marked right? Whose fault was it?”

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