Can you dig it?

By JIM HALEY

Herald Writer

EVERETT – Backhoe operators wonder if the next pass of the shovel will rip into a buried line.

If it’s a power cable, will someone be electrocuted? If it’s natural gas, will there also be a spark and an explosion?

Those thoughts have been worrying Everett Public Works employees in the wake of a spate of accidents and near accidents this year involving natural gas and power cable lines.

There were 22 line cuts or near hits in Everett during the first five months of this year, about four times normal, said Public Works Director Clair Olivers. Nobody’s been hurt, but there have been several gas leaks, one in May that kept traffic on Broadway snarled for hours.

The problem is countywide, but measures are under way to cut down on the hits, according to the company in charge of locating many utility lines before digging starts. Everett officials hope the remedies are immediate.

"Our crews have been pretty frustrated lately," said Callie Neylan, Everett’s assistant safety manager. "We want it resolved. We don’t want to wait until something catastrophic happens to fix the problem."

State law requires utilities to mark the location of such things as buried water, gas, sewer, power and telecommunications lines using color-coded paint on the surface. The law also requires the people doing the digging to call and give utilities two business days to mark it before digging.

There’s a single, toll-free telephone number for people planning to dig. The law applies to anyone who digs 12 inches deep or more. Even the homeowner who digs a fence post hole is well advised to call 1-800-424-5555.

Many utilities, including local municipal utilities, do their own marking. Some, such as Snohomish County PUD (power) and Puget Sound Energy (natural gas), hire a contractor to do that work, Issaquah-based Locating Inc.

It has been the work of Locating, a business with 180 employees in Washington and a field office in south Everett, that has drawn attention by Olivers.

He said there have been numerous "mismarks," meaning that buried power or gas lines were incorrectly marked.

The result has been increased safety concerns raised by city public works crews.

For the first time, Olivers is preparing to bill gas and power organizations for his crews’ time lost in the 22 incidents. The amount isn’t much, about $4,000, but it’s one way of getting attention.

"The cost is not the issue," Olivers said. "Safety is the issue."

A crew member on an excavator can dig up a drain line "and the worst thing that happens is the hole gets wet," Olivers said. "If you dig up power or gas, you’ve got a significant amount of energy that could hurt somebody."

Puget Sound Energy officials don’t agree that all the incidents cited by Olivers are mismarks.

The law doesn’t require utilities to mark every service line, just the main lines. Some of the Everett complaints involved service lines to buildings, company municipal land planner Elaine Babby said.

"There are two sides to every story and what may be described as a mismark may be not be legally within the boundaries of what a utility owner is obliged to mark," Babby added.

But the problem in Snohomish County isn’t confined to Everett.

Cross Valley Water District general manager Gary Hajek is a member of the operating committee of the Utilities Underground Locating Center, the one-call system supported by utilities for this area.

"We have received at the center numerous complaints about things not getting located in time," Hajek said.

In Marysville, construction coordinator Louie Wilson said his city has seen numerous mismarks of power and gas line locations done by Locating.

In April, his crew was doing a job in an alley and cut into a gas line. The yellow marks for the gas line were eight feet off, he said.

Locating Inc. admittedly has had its problems, but now officials hope things have been straightened out.

Beth Rogers, who manages service contracts for PSE, defended Locating. She said the inaccurate marking of gas lines has been to a great degree a result of the rapidly growing economy in the Everett-Snohomish County area.

There have been a lot of jobs available, and experienced workers at Locating have gone on to greener pastures. At the same time, construction has been going like gangbusters, meaning more work for less experienced people.

"When you have this much digging in the ground, the distinct possibility is you’re going to have more things to hit," Rogers said.

And you can never tell what you will find when you dig.

In 1995, Everett Public Works crews unearthed a well-preserved section of wooden sidewalk dating back to the early 1900s while installing a new storm drain and catch basin on 37th Street just west of Broadway. A section was cut out and put in a museum.

That was a welcome surprise, unlike the gas line in the same vicinity that was ruptured in May.

Locating’s state manager, Bob Paterson, said he was surprised by Olivers raising the issue now because he thinks he’s got things worked out after suffering some growing pains.

"We are working with the city of Everett," Paterson said. "These problems are going away."

Of the 22 incidents cited by Olivers, about half were his company’s fault, Paterson said. Many of the others were cases where the underground facilities could not be located for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the records about what’s buried where are out of date, he added.

"Those are some of the headaches you have in the locating business," he said.

Paterson has beefed up his staff to twice the level it was in the fall to avoid problems he said were at a peak last year when Locating employees left for other jobs. New employees have gotten additional training and equipment.

For example, PSE now supplies Locating with records on computer disks to fit into laptops carried in every car. The hope is the computer records will be faster, more accurate and easier to read than paper maps.

The Public Utility District also soon will produce its locating records on computer disks. The PUD finds it cheaper to hire Locating than to do the marking with its own crews, assistant general manager John White said.

Last year, the public utility paid Locating $283,000 to make marks at 21,500 locations. That’s an average of about $13 per marking.

Until White received a letter from Olivers recently listing concerns about Locating, he said the PUD hadn’t been aware of any concerns with the private company.

Although safety is the primary concern with the mismarking, there’s also the element of lost time by utility customers and the construction crews, as well as the cost of fixing the problem.

Take the case of a subcontractor working on a traffic signal in January along Airport Road in south Everett.

The company correctly called for utilities to come out and mark the locations of its lines and cables. But it did so about six months beforehand, and the marking paint had long worn off by the time the company got around to doing the work.

The company drilled where it shouldn’t have and cut through a GTE Northwest fiber-optics line. The damage was $46,000, GTE network reliability specialist Jeff Shipley said. The law allows triple damages for negligence, so the bill to the subcontractor will be about $138,000.

The free call-before-you-dig system is worthwhile, said Don Evans, executive administrator of the board that governs the one-call center.

If you don’t call before you dig and you damage a utility line, you will have to foot the bill for repairs. If you call, you’re protected.

"It’s sort of like a free insurance policy," Evans said. "It costs you a wait of two business days," he said, "but it’s lot safer to know than to guess."

You can call Herald Writer Jim Haley at 425-339-3447 or send e-mail to

haley@heraldnet.com.

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