In Texas, the month of April means the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. Gen. Sam Houston defeated Gen. Santa Anna in a brief fight on land that is now part of southeastern Harris County, securing Texas’ status as an independent republic. April is also known for taxes being due and as the month in which the Titanic sank, though there is no direct evidence linking the two.
More importantly, April is also National Safe Digging Month — aimed at protecting our nation’s underground infrastructure from accidental pipeline and cable breaks through careless digging or drilling.
The Common Ground Alliance (CGA), a stakeholder-run organization dedicated to protecting underground utility lines and the people who dig near them, has recognized April as National Safe Digging Month since 2009. At its heart is the use of the 811 telephone number. The Federal Communications Commission designated 811 in March 2005 as a national number used to reach organizations whose job it is to process locations for underground utilities prior to excavation. Just as 911 is used nationwide for emergencies, 811 connects callers to the nearest 811 center, no matter the state.
The call to 811 is free, as is the subsequent underground utility locating service — and in Texas it’s also the law, specifically the Texas One-Call law, which can be found in the Utilities Code, Title 5, Chapter 251. With few exceptions, any digging below a depth of 16 inches in Texas using mechanical equipment requires a call to 811 first. Calling 811 prevents injuries, property damage, repair costs and, in the case of oil or gas lines being hit, hefty fines from the Railroad Commission of Texas.
In Texas, the nonprofit 811 call center is Texas811, serving the state for over 30 years. In 2016, Texas811 processed more than 3 million individual locate requests. Open 24 hours, seven days a week, the center works with its more than 1,600 members — many of whom are oil and gas companies — to protect underground Texas through a call to 811 prior to digging or drilling.
A Las Vegas gambler would shy away from the odds of not hitting an underground line in Texas: The Railroad Commission estimates there are over 439,000 miles of pipeline in Texas, the largest amount in the nation. That gives Texas one-sixth of the more than 20 million miles of underground utilities in the nation. According to data compiled by the CGA, those nationwide 20 million-plus miles equal more than one football field’s length in buried utilities for every single person in the United States.
A breakdown of the Texas oil and gas pipelines by the Railroad Commission shows over 148,000 miles of natural gas and liquified petroleum gas distribution pipe, over 66,000 miles of hazardous liquid and natural gas transmission lines, over 175,000 miles of intrastate production and gathering lines originating from lease lines and an additional 45,000-plus miles in interstate lines in the state.
With Texas811 taking more than 3 million locate requests in 2016, one might think that underground is pretty safe. However, for calendar year 2016, there were 9,064 incidents reported to the Railroad Commission of Texas through use of the Texas Damage Reporting Form (TDRF) online system. That works out to 3.03 damages per 1,000 locates, according to Railroad Commission numbers. According to data collected by the CGA, an underground utility line is damaged once every six minutes nationwide because there was no call made to 811 for a line locate before excavation — but a simple call to 811 reduces the likelihood of damage to 1 percent.
When you call 811, the locate center takes your proposed dig information and in turn contacts utility and pipeline owners in the immediate area of the need to mark their line location with paint or flags. Forty-eight hours (excluding weekends and holidays, unless it is an emergency situation) are allowed for this process to take place with the clock starting as soon as you end the voice call or finish an electronic submission over the Texas811 portal on its website. For example, a call placed at 2 p.m. on Friday would have until 2 p.m. on Tuesday to be located. A call placed at 2 p.m. Monday would have until 2 p.m. Wednesday.
While a big push is made in April’s National Safe Digging Month to educate the public on the need to call 811, initiatives continue throughout the year. One of the largest is the Damage Prevention Councils of Texas (DPC). A fully incorporated 501(c)(3), it is dedicated to underground utility damage prevention, along with the promotion of the “811 — Call Before You Dig” message and the Common Ground Alliance best practices. Currently, there are 23 regional councils encompassing the state, falling roughly along Texas Department of Transportation district lines.
A DPC is typically comprised of construction contractors, utility operators, gathering and transmission pipeline operators, municipalities, utility locators, engineering firms, TxDOT and other associated industry stakeholders, with Texas811 serving in a liaison capacity.
Damage Prevention Councils meet on a regular basis throughout Texas. DPC meetings provide an optimal forum where stakeholders can share information and perspectives, and then work together on all aspects of damage prevention issues. In promoting a spirit of shared responsibility, regional DPCs welcome all stakeholders who would like to be a part of the damage prevention solution.
Additional safety education is provided by Texas811, DPC, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) and Enertech. This partnership provides mock line strike, damage prevention and pipeline response liaison programs that, like DPC meetings, are free to attend.
TEEX will instruct the free pipeline response training class covering local information about pipelines, products, product properties, response information and local pipeline operators’ contact information. Attendees will see and hear what happens when an excavation crew accidentally ruptures a pipeline. This demonstration is followed up with local fire, police and pipeline operators working together in a unified command to deal with the incident.
Texas811 will also be instructing free damage prevention training classes covering pipelines, products, product properties, state one-call laws, safe digging practices and local pipeline operators’ contact information. As the oil industry goes, so goes the nation. Help make this April the best National Safe Digging Month ever by promoting the need to call 811 to know what’s below.
Photos courtesy of Texas811