Subterranean Trouble

Earlier this year, routine activities came to an abrupt halt at San Bernardino Valley (Calif.) College when a construction crew excavating with a backhoe struck a power cable, causing a small explosion that knocked out a campus transformer.

College buildings lost power, telephone and e-mail services. When the backup-power system started, a surge knocked it out of service. Because the offices of the San Bernardino Community College District are on campus, loss of communications also affected other institutions.

The incident is typical of the more than 1,000 utility hits that occur every workday in the United States: essential services disrupted causing routine business to be stopped or delayed. The cost of a utility hit can be huge, and ultimately one or more parties are held responsible and must pay.

As with most accidents that damage buried infrastructure, no one was hurt in the California college accident, although the potential for serious injury, even death, always is present when power cable or natural gas pipes are struck.

Consider what happened in downtown St. Cloud, Minn., just before Christmas in 1998. Four people died 15 were injured, three buildings were destroyed and several others were so badly damaged that they had to be razed, and more than a dozen other structures were badly damaged from an explosion that followed an accidental hit of a small-diameter natural gas pipe.

The St. Cloud disaster occurred when a 1 1/8-inch plastic gas line was severed while workers were drilling a vertical hole to install an anchor for a guy line to support a utility pole.

The anchor rod struck a buried granite slab, causing it to change direction and hit the gas line. Escaping gas collected in an unoccupied building where it ignited about 20 minutes after the pipe was damaged—a dramatic illustration of how a relatively simple construction procedure can be deadly.

Robert Kipp, executive director of the Common Ground Alliance, said more than 60 people have died from excavation accidents during the past three years and that each year there are more than 400,000 incidents resulting in damage to buried utilities. The cost of that damage runs to millions of dollars.

The St. Cloud accident and other high-profile incidents draw attention to the need for stronger efforts to protect the nation’s underground infrastructure, and over the past five years, significant progress has been made.

Common Ground Alliance

During that period, the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) has become a primary driving force coordinating programs to protect underground pipe and cable. The private, nonprofit organization is dedicated to implementing underground utility damage-prevention programs based on provisions of the Common Ground Best Practices Study authorized by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). The study was published in 1999.

CGA is supported by more than 130 organizations representing utility owners and providers of utility services, one-call centers, utility contractors, industry manufacturers and suppliers and government agencies, and much of the alliance’s work is done on a volunteer basis by representatives of member organizations. Alan J. Yonkman of Detroit Edison represents the electrical industry on the CGA board.

Best practices

Today, following CGA Best Practices is recognized as the best way to reduce the risk of damage to underground utilities.

CGA’s recommendations include one-call membership for all utility owners and operators, contacting the appropriate one-call centers before excavation or trenchless construction begins, timely notification to utility owners by one-call centers, accurate locating and marking of all utilities and the implementation of safe excavation and trenchless construction methods (CGA uses the term “excavation” to include any procedure that displaces the earth; so drilling, boring and tunneling are covered under the excavation umbrella).

“The Common Ground study concluded that communication is the single most important element of underground utility damage prevention,” Kipp said. “Therefore, much of CGA’s efforts are directed toward improving communication among the various organizations who own and operate underground facilities and that are involved in construction that includes excavation. Preventing damage to underground facilities is a complex undertaking that requires shared responsibility among many different organizations down to individual crew members on construction sites.”

To help create awareness of the importance of protecting buried utilities, CGA has developed educational programs, including a “Dig Safely” public-awareness campaign to emphasize the importance of notifying one-call centers before excavating. The “Dig Safely” logo is available at no cost for use in advertising, printed material and Web pages. A “Dig Safely” video is available, and a quarterly Common Ground newsletter keeps the industry updated about developments in damage-prevention programs.

CGA’s public educational efforts clearly are worthwhile, and members of supporting organizations say communication among stake holders has improved.

In addition, CGA initiatives should result in changes that should ultimately lead to the reduction of utility hits.

• Three-digit dialing

Contacting one-call centers to arrange the locating and marking of buried utilities will be easier when provisions of a new federal law are implemented. The new system will operate like “911” for emergencies or “411” for local telephone information. A call placed to the three-digit one-call number—no matter where the caller is—will be answered by the one-call center nearest the caller, even in states with multiple one-call organizations.

Enabling legislation already is in place, and earlier this year the Federal Communications Commission initiated rule-making procedures to assign an easy-to-use number for one-call notification.

• Mandatory one-call membership

It may seem surprising, but not all utility owners are members of one-call organizations. Requirements for one-call participation vary by state; one difficult issue is how to address facilities on private property that may not be owned or operated by conventional utility agencies or corporations.

• Data collection

Gathering data about causes of utility accidents will help develop steps to reduce damage to buried pipe and cable. While some states and individual one-call centers maintain records that include information about how strikes occurred, there is no national database to gather such information.

CGA has launched a pilot program to gather and evaluate such data. Initially, information is being gathered from CGA member organizations, but ultimately it is hoped that a national data-collection program will result.

The value of such a program is evident by examining the one in operation in Colorado, which has been compiling data since 2001.

“We have learned vital information,” said J.D. Maniscalco, executive director of Utility Notification Center of Colorado (UNCC). “We know what types of damage occurred, the type of equipment that caused them and the categories of contractors causing the majority of damage.”

Maniscalco says UNCC records show the four most frequent causes of damage to buried facilities are:

• Failure to request that utilities on a job site be located and marked;

• Delay or failure by a utility owner to properly locate and mark buried pipe or cable;

• Proceeding to excavate on sites where locates have been requested, but not yet made;

• Failure by construction crews to exercise reasonable care.

According to Maniscalco, “The collection and evaluation of this information shows the root causes of accidents and enables us to target programs to address them, and ultimately, damages should decrease.”

Colorado’s experience is being utilized in the CGA’s pilot program, and its database is housed in UNCC’s system with plans ultimately for CGA to establish a stand-alone system for gathering and processing data. In time, Kipp said, it is hoped the program will be expanded to include all of North America. EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or


About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Construction Journalist

Jeff Griffin, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at

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