A Program to Prevent Underground Utility Damage

By Wayne Kidd

Imagine a typical busy highway in Anytown, USA. This highway is lined with schools, hospitals, businesses, shopping malls, or residential areas. There are numerous intersections. The homes and businesses in the area enjoy all of the services provided by the local utilities, many of which are buried underground.

Now imagine that during the course of any given day a tanker truck carrying several thousand gallons of gasoline or other flammable cargo is involved in an accident while en route to a customer. Major traffic problems develop as the truck rests on its side at the edge of the roadway. A quick response and the training of local emergency services enable the injured to be transported to local hospitals in a timely fashion, and only several hundred gallons of the tanker’s cargo spilled on the ground. Much work remains to be done before this area returns to normal. Soil contaminated by the spilled fuel must be removed, and the overturned tanker must be uprighted. However, prior to working on either of these items, the remaining cargo must be transferred to another tanker.

If we think back to our school days, we will recall that when liquid flows between two vessels, static electricity is generated. In the case of our overturned tanker, any spark could result in an explosion. To prevent such a spark, standard operating procedures often suggest that the tanker and the transfer equipment be bonded together and grounded. This process will normally require that several ground rods be driven at the accident site. In addition, removal of the contaminated soil will involve excavation.

More often than not, this work will be completed by emergency service workers, hazardous-materials specialists, or contract cleanup crews. These people, while highly trained in their professions, may not recognize the existence of underground utility facilities in the area of the incident.

Section 56-265.15:1 of the Virginia Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act provides for an exemption for excavations conducted during emergencies as defined in the law. While these exemptions often allow work to proceed with little or no notice to the notification centers, they, unfortunately, do not remove the hazards that often exist just out of sight and out of mind. Virginia has developed a new and innovative partnership in this area.

What began as an informal discussion between various agencies has developed into a simple but effective program that protects underground utilities from damage during incidents like the one described above while reducing risks for the emergency crews should a utility line be struck. The program was developed cooperatively by Virginia’s Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) and Miss Utility of Virginia, the state’s One Call notification center.

The process is quite simple and uses the emergency notification system presently in place at Miss Utility. Following an incident, the incident commander (IC) or a representative from VDEM calls the Miss Utility One Call center. This notice provides much of the same information as would any excavation notice but, in addition, asks that the utility locators contact the IC at the scene (usually by cell phone) to discuss the situation and then respond to the command center to set up at the incident site.

Once on site, the IC discusses with the utility locator the types of facilities in the area and the excavation work to be done, such as driving ground rods or removing soil. If the IC determines that the area is safe, the locator is asked to determine the position of existing facilities using normal locating methods. In situations where it is determined that the locator would be at risk (because of hazards from the incident), the IC consults with the locator to determine where excavation poses the least risk to workers and buried facilities. The notice of an incident also alerts the utility owner of situations where spills or impacts from an incident may have damaged the facility. Previously, this damage may have gone unnoticed until a facility failed at a later date.

The plan, developed early in 1998 as a working draft document, did not have to wait long for its tryout. The ink on the first draft was hardly dry when pipes at a tank farm in Richmond developed a leak. The location of this incident added to the potential for a serious situation. The tank farm was adjacent to I-95, the major north-south interstate. Also present at the site were a railroad right of way and, less than a few hundred yards away, the James River. The plan worked almost flawlessly. The call to the One Call notification center identified numerous gas pipelines, communications facilities, and power lines in the area. Many of them could have been at risk.

Following this incident, the plan was reviewed, and several improvements were made. The results have now been made a part of the standard operating guidelines for Virginia’s hazardous-materials response teams. The same information has also been included in a new VDEM publication, Guidelines for the Mitigation of Accidental Discharges of Motor Vehicle Fluids (available on the Internet at ). Training continues to educate emergency service workers on the procedures to be followed. Representatives of VDEM and Miss Utility continue to meet to refine the process and discuss results following incidents.

The partnership between VDEM and Miss Utility has also produced several added benefits. Miss Utility has been asked to participate in several state haz-mat conferences as an exhibitor and presenter. This has given us the opportunity to present our damage-prevention message and promote the new partnership. The process has proven to be win-win for everyone involved: Emergency service responders are safer while doing their job, utilities are protected from damage, and service to the utility customers is not interrupted.

For additional information, contact the author at (804) 746-8237 or or Steven De Lisi at (804) 897-6500, ext. 6572, or at sdelisi@vdem.state.va.us.

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