In this installment, in honor of April being National Safe Digging Month, we look at the ORS’ pipeline inspection/enforcement team and its role in the South Carolina 811 "Call Before You Dig" program.
The adage “patience is a virtue” wasn’t coined to describe the benefits of the South Carolina 811 Call Before You Dig program, but it certainly applies.
It’s human nature that by the time many of us get around to starting a project at the house big enough to involve digging up the yard, we’ve already put it off as long as we possibly could and are in a rush to get it done. And on the commercial side, developers are no different – the faster a new construction project or development is finished, the faster they make money by selling or renting the units/homes.
Some things, however, cannot be rushed: Chief among those is safety. At its core, the South Carolina 811 program is a safety initiative. It saves property, and it saves lives.
The ORS trains and employs pipeline safety experts who have seen the damage that careless residential and commercial digging can cause.
“The overwhelming majority of damage to underground pipelines and pipeline accidents is caused by people who dig without having called to identify buried lines,” says Johnny Eustace, ORS Pipeline Safety Program Manager. “State law requires calling 811 before you dig, but people get in a rush or make assumptions that lead to trouble.”
Eustace says the same problem areas tend to recur from year to year.
“We have three main issues. One is contractors digging without a locate ticket (from an SC811 authorized locator),” Eustace says. “They go and perform the work and do not call 811 at all.
“The second issue is a contractor calls in a locate ticket, but they won’t pothole, or dig down to visually expose, the other utilities that have been located for safety. We have people who do directional drilling, which is drilling out horizontally from a fixed point rather than vertically straight down. They’ll be thinking they’re shooting deep enough to avoid other lines so they don’t pothole the other utilities' lines; but then they hit them because they didn’t visually determine how deep those lines ran.
“The third, and biggest, issue we have across the state is contractors who will call in a bunch of locate tickets at a time, say 25. Then, they don’t start work until a month after they’re called in. So the operator will go mark the utility lines -- but by the time the contractor does the work three to four weeks later, those paint lines have washed away, faded, or the grass they were on got cut. It’s almost as bad as not calling in a ticket at all.”
The 811 process is simple. State law requires you to do one of the following at least three full working days before digging -- call 811, use the SC811 app, or visit SC811.com -- to notify the utilities of your intention and generate a ticket. Utility operators then have 72 hours to perform the marking at no cost to the digger.
Once marked, dig at least two feet on all sides of the marks, never on them. Failing to follow this procedure can endanger the lives and property of yourself and others.
“I don’t think sometimes people have the full picture of what can happen if you damage a line and leave it,” Eustace says. “Last year in Greenville, a third-party contractor was digging and cut a plastic main. The equipment operator got in the hole and there was a spark. He suffered significant burns and was sent to the hospital.
“Other times I’ve seen a piece of equipment like a backhoe catch fire after striking a line and being engulfed in natural gas fumes that ignite the piece of equipment's engine.
“Any time you’re dealing with leaking natural gas, it’s extremely dangerous. Every safety precaution must be taken so you don’t make a bad situation worse.”
Damage prevention is the first line of defense to keep the public safe, protect property, and reduce damage to underground pipelines.
“Every year we have scheduled inspections that we do,” Eustace says. “We inspect intrastate transmission lines, critical valves, corrosion control, distribution operators, and general operations and maintenance.”
At present, there are 38 separate natural gas operators of various types and sizes, from major utilities such as Dominion to local housing authorities and small businesses. The ORS has three full-time licensed and certified inspectors and a director, Eustace, who also performs inspections part-time.
Eustace says inspections follow a consistent format.
“We’ll call the operator three to four weeks before the inspection, and they’ll send us records and manuals for pipeline integrity management; we’ll review those prior to the visit,” Eustace says. “When we arrive, we look at all their records, their procedures, all the little things that our forms require. We ask every question verbatim. When we get through with office portion, we go into the field to check for signage, corrosion control, the critical valves and such before going back to the office for an exit interview.”
In addition to regular inspections, the ORS has a specific Damage Prevention Initiative (DPI) in place for natural gas.
“The ORS Pipeline Safety program is in place to ensure that all the operators in South Carolina are conducting business based on their procedures, operations, and maintenance manuals,” Eustace says. “We’re here to help the operators understand and implement best practices in the field and help train operators in implementing or dealing with new state and federal regulations that come up.”
Eustace also engages with operators across the state and region at major industry conferences and events.
“I’ll speak to Carolina Public Gas Association and do presentations for them,” Eustace says,” and we’ll go to events like the SGA, the Southern Gas Association, and talk to anyone who comes by.”
The ORS assists the SC811 program, which is administered by the Palmetto Utility Protection Service, by checking 811 locate tickets at the request of natural gas operators.
“We’ll go out into the field and check their 811 locate tickets to make sure those are up to date,” Eustace says. “We also get phone calls from operators about people hitting their underground utility pipelines.
SC811 infractions are handled through SC811’s enforcement committee, and penalties can include everything from warnings to service interruptions to fines.
“The goal of every aspect of the program is public safety,” Eustace says. “Property damage, possible life-threatening issues, evacuations, all kinds of things can go wrong when you cut a pipeline. In the vast majority of these cases, a simple call to 811 -- which is the law -- could have avoided everything.
“You can never forget that every leak, no matter how small, can be lethal.”
SC811 Quick Facts:
- Established in 1978
- Not-for-profit organization- 501(c)6
- Governed by a board of directors composed of its members
- Serves the entire state of South Carolina
- Over 410 member facility operators
- Average of 5 member operators are notified on each locate request
- Over 60% of locate notices are processed by online users
- Over 929,000 locate notices processed in 2018
- 48 employees; Over 50% of which are Customer Service Representatives