In 2019, more than $30 billion in damage was done to utility infrastructure across the United States – to natural gas lines, telecommunication facilities, and other public assets – by wayward excavation work. Common Ground Alliance (CGA), a partnership of utility providers spanning the breadth of the nation, released its most recent findings in its 2020 DIRT Report, or Damage Information Reporting Tool Report.
A recent national public opinion survey of homeowners, conducted by CGA revealed that 58 percent of homeowners in the United States plan to complete a home improvement project involving digging in the next 12 months. Of that figure, 49 percent of them will unknowingly risk damaging utility infrastructure for an easily avoidable reason.
The DIRT Report revealed that there were roughly 442,898 cases of underground utility damage that occurred in the U.S. in 2019. Out of those, 2,199 happened in Oregon. Failure to request services to locate underground utilities by calling the state-designated “8-1-1” helpline was identified as the single biggest cause of damage.
The state’s natural gas system was the most adversely affected utility type during this period, accounting for 41 percent of the total damage incidents. Second to this was the telecommunications sector, which made up 28.5 percent of the state’s underground utility damage for the year. It should be noted, too, that the type of “digging” alluded to here includes everything from the preparation of garden beds and digging fence post holes to commercial excavation work requiring backhoes and other large machinery.
To address this issue, the Oregon Legislature created a state agency called the Oregon Utility Notification Center (OUNC) in 1995. Its purpose, as it is defined on the agency’s website (digsafelyoregon.com), is “to operate and maintain a state-of-the-art one-call system for the State of Oregon to reduce damages to underground facilities and to promote public safety related to excavation issues.”
“Following the requirements of Oregon’s excavation laws is vital to the safety of underground facilities, workers, and the public,” OUNC added.
Both OUNC and utility companies like NW Natural are proponents of promoting information about Oregon Excavation Laws and Call Before You Dig Issues.
With summer in full bloom around us, northwest homeowners and contractors are undertaking a higher volume of outdoor digging or excavation projects. In a recent press release submitted to the Sentinel, NW Natural shared that it wanted this take the opportunity to emphasize the importance of calling 8-1-1 to locate underground utility lines at least two business days ahead of starting any project that involves digging.
“Oregon homeowners must call 8-1-1 to request utility location service if they are working on their own property and plan to dig 12 inches or more into the ground,” wrote NW Natural, “and all contractors are required to call 8-1-1, regardless of depth. This is especially important when considering natural gas lines, which can be installed no more than 18 inches deep... It’s the law; it’s free, and it’s the only way to know for sure where underground utilities lie on a property.”
NW Natural reported that it responded to 26 incidents in Lane County last year where natural gas lines were either encountered or damaged unexpectedly by digging. Across its Oregon and Southwest Washington territory, a total of 639 incidents occurred, 500 of which involved broken lines with escaping natural gas.
“Those found liable for damaging a utility line can face costly repairs and fines,” the NW Natural press release warned, “but damage… is preventable.
“Along with calling 8-1-1, the process of requesting a locate is easier than ever with the Online Locate Request tool. This is a creation of the Oregon Utility Notification Center… and is available at digsafelyoregon.com/resources/locate-requests/.”
NW Natural said it also has a team of employees who are dedicated to educating contractors and residents alike in damage prevention efforts. With the launch of its formal damage prevention program in 2006, it has reportedly reduced damages by about 70 percent over the past 15 years. Last year, the utility company became the first Oregon-based gas distribution utility to earn a Gold Shovel Stand Certification for its commitment to continuous damage prevention improvement. Gold Shovel Association is a national nonprofit focused on improving safety by providing meaningful damage prevention certifications and standardized performance metrics.
“Still, there is plenty of work to do,” said NW Natural, “If all else fails, report damages immediately by calling NW Natural at 1 (800) 882-3377. No damage is too small to report, including gouges, scrapes, and dents. If you smell natural gas while you’re digging, leave the area and then call both 9-1-1 and NW Natural to report the leak.
“The easiest and free way to avoid dig-related damage is to call 8-1-1 to request location service ahead of time. For more information, visit www.nwnatural.com/safety/call-before-you-dig.”