Photos and article by Kirsten Delamarter
Failing to locate pipelines before digging can have dire consequences: ruptured lines, leaks of natural gas or hazardous liquids, injuries and even fatalities.
“We have been very fortunate in Kentucky to avoid injuries and deaths as a result of a pipeline strike,” Kentucky Public Service Commission Public Information Officer Andrew Melnykovych said during an event in Louisville last week that focused on safe and lawful digging practices. “… A little damage to a pipe can do a lot of damage above ground.”
The Oct. 24 event, at the Kentucky Regional Fire Training Academy, brought together more than a hundred emergency responders, contractors and utility operators and culminated in a mock pipeline strike demonstration.
It was one of five pipeline safety events hosted by the PSC in October and came after a new law took effect that made the agency responsible for enforcing state and federal pipeline safety regulations. The PSC regulates more than 1,100 gas, water, sewer, electric and telecommunication utilities operating throughout the Commonwealth.
Almost all states participate in 811, the “one-call” telephone contact that makes it easy for an excavator — whether that’s a contractor on a large-scale construction project or a homeowner installing a fence — to request utility markings in the area of proposed digging.
Kentucky law requires that excavators notify utility operators, typically done by calling 811, two business days prior to breaking ground. The law also requires utilities to visit the site and provide the markings within a certain time period. The excavator is then expected to use proper care when digging.
Since July 2018, when the PSC began its enforcement efforts, the agency has issued 580 demand letters, which are written to parties believed to have violated safe digging laws and outline associated penalties. First-time offenders are given the opportunity to attend an educational session to reduce the cost of penalties.
Melnykovych said the agency has assessed more than $1 million in fines thus far. The penalty money is used solely to fund the PSC’s education and outreach efforts, including the mock line strike events.
In addition to discussing laws and enforcement, speakers at the event also led sessions in calling Kentucky 811, identifying pipeline leaks and responding to line strikes. The mock line strike, which involved local fire fighters, utility operators and construction workers, reinforced lessons learned during the classroom sessions.
“Gas is absolutely nothing to fool with,” Melnykovych said, adding that in the event of a suspected line rupture, the excavator should immediately stop working and call the fire department. “There’s no sense in taking a risk.”
Tim Vaughn, regulatory affairs director for Kentucky 811, echoed Melnykovych’s advice.
“Do not compromise safety for anything — for any amount of money — because people are counting on us,” Vaughn said.
More information about the Kentucky Service Commission and safe digging laws can be found here.
Learn more about Kentucky 811 here.