‘Tis the Season…for Safe Digging

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

The warmer months are here, which means more time outside for many of us, whether for recreation or to tackle home-improvement projects.

Personally, I’m looking forward to running in the mornings, biking in the evenings, and spending weekends digging around in my vegetable garden — but not before taking an important safety action.

Call 811 Before You Dig

April is National Safe Digging Month, the perfect time to remind you to call 811 a few days before you put a shovel in the ground for any reason. This includes:

  • Planting trees, bushes, flowers, or vegetables.
  • Installing a fence or a mailbox.
  • Building a deck.

Calling 811 will direct you to the appropriate resource in your state, where you can request to have the location of buried utilities marked with paint or flags before breaking ground. Check out call811.com to learn more — some states even have an online portal where you can submit an electronic request.

It doesn’t matter what the project is, how deep you plan to dig, or whether you’ve dug there before. Utility lines and wells can be located just inches below the surface or even change depths over time, which might not be as uncommon as it sounds.

Understanding that things shift under our feet is important, especially when you consider how much is going on beneath the surface: there are 2.8 million miles of regulated pipelines and 17,000 underground natural gas storage wells in the U.S., according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Don’t Risk It  

The number-one cause of gas distribution pipeline accidents is excavation damage caused by third parties: anyone not employed by the gas company, such as homeowners or contractors.

In fact, more than a third of all PHMSA-reportable gas distribution pipeline accidents in 2019 had “excavation damage” listed as the incident cause (PHMSA 2021). Of these, 88% were attributed to a third-party.  

If you don’t call 811 before your next home-improvement project, you could disrupt the internet service to your whole neighborhood. Each year, damage to underground utilities costs the U.S. an estimated $30 billion.

Or you could put your entire community at risk. “Improve Pipeline Leak Detection and Mitigation” is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List because damaged pipelines can be extremely dangerous. 

Unfortunately, this is something I’ve seen up close.

Devastation in San Francisco, California

I was the Board member on scene for the NTSB investigation of a February 6, 2019, pipeline accident in San Francisco, California.

An outdoor fire burns in front of a mini excavator amid smoke as firefighters try to extinguish the flames.
Northwest-facing view of fire during emergency response. (Photo courtesy of PG&E.)

What happened?

In digging to install underground fiber-optic cables, a contractor struck a pipeline, releasing over 1.9 million cubic feet of natural gas. The gas soon ignited.

The fire, which had flames more than two-stories high, reached a fully occupied restaurant with a rental unit above before spreading to the neighboring buildings.

Miraculously, there were no injuries. The accident did, however, cause over $10 million in damage. It also put many lives at risk, including those of the first responders.

How did this happen?

Our investigation determined that the probable cause of the fire was, in laymen’s terms, the contractor’s failure to follow safe digging practices.

While the contractor did call 811 to have utilities marked before beginning work, he used an excavator to mechanically dig too close to the marked utility lines. As a result, the excavator struck the pipeline, which released the gas that later ignited.

The safe thing to do — and the practice required under state law — would have been to use a lower-impact digging technique that close to the pipeline, such as hand digging.

Know What’s Below

While you might not be installing fiber-optic cables in your neighborhood, we can all take a lesson from San Francisco: Call 811 before you dig for any reason — and follow the guidance you’re given. It’s the only way to know what’s below. Never, ever take the risk.

Be careful this spring, wherever your home-improvement projects take you. And if you’re a gardener like me, here’s hoping these April showers pay off with beautiful May flowers…and some home-grown vegetables, too.

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