811: The Number to Call Before You Dig

811: The Number to Call Before You Dig

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Wolfgang Gordillo recalls the day when a fellow worker, digging on a construction site in Seattle, accidentally struck and ruptured a gas pipeline with a pickaxe.

“The fire department showed up, evacuated the area [and] closed off the gas line,” says Gordillo, who works as a contractor in construction and home remodeling in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The accident didn’t cause an explosion or fire – a possible risk when gas from a leak comes into contact with air and a spark, but it disrupted service to the area and prompted an evacuation.

According to federal data, accidents like the one Gordillo described are the leading cause of damage to gas distribution pipelines nationally. It’s also the leading cause of deaths and injuries to people in these pipeline accidents, according to statistics on significant pipeline incidents kept by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

Nationwide, from 1994 to 2013, damage caused by digging by a third party – someone other than the utility or a contractor hired by the utility -- totaled nearly $378 million, and caused 139 deaths and 445 injuries. Significant pipeline incidents are the most expensive accidents – where property damage exceeds $50,000 – and the most life threatening, resulting in deaths and injuries.

The trend was so alarming that the Transportation Dept., about 15 years ago, issued best practices to reduce these incidents, working with utilities, professional excavators, and other stakeholders. In 2007, a national call center and number – 811 – was established to help professional excavators and contractors be aware of underground infrastructure.

Despite a nationwide campaign urging people to “call before you dig,” many residential contractors, including immigrant and minority workers, are still in the dark about the hazards of digging on the job.

Commercial contractors are more likely to know about the 811 law, says Miguel Galarza, president of Yerba Buena Engineering and Construction, Inc., a company in San Francisco with 25 employees.

“If you’re doing residential work, you really don’t pay much attention to the requirements of 811, and it’s a shame because it doesn’t cost anything,” Galarza points out.

Richard Taylor, a dig-in investigator with PG&E, says anyone can call 811. Dig-ins are a term used by industry to describe accidental pipeline strikes.

You don’t have to be a licensed contractor to call, and all that’s required is to give the location of where you plan to dig, he says. The call center will alert utilities that have underground infrastructure in the area, including gas pipelines, electrical lines, water and sewer lines, and telecommunications cables. The utilities have 48 hours to send out a locator to mark the location of the underground lines with paint, for example, or other visual cues.

Taylor spends his days driving around the East Bay, looking out for anyone doing digging work. Taylor checks to see if the workers called 811, and informs them about the law if they’re unaware of it. He says accidentally striking a pipeline is serious business.

“If you hit a water line, you get water everywhere. It runs downhill, you might flood someone’s house out,” said Taylor. “If you hit a gas line and it leaks, if you get a mixture of gas and air and [a] spark, you could blow something up."

Between 1994 and 2013, California had 91 significant pipeline incidents, according to federal data, that caused nine deaths and 19 injuries, and more than $22 million in property damage.

In California, homeowners are exempt from the 811 requirement. However, a homeowner who plans to do work that requires a city permit still needs to call 811, Taylor says.

Galarza, the commercial construction company owner, says it’s important for anyone doing any digging work, including homeowners, to call 811, because they may be unaware of underground utilities running through or near their property.

On a Tuesday morning, at about 9 a.m., the San Francisco Day Labor Center in the city’s Mission District is bustling with dozens of largely immigrant Latino men, seeking to connect with homeowners who need help moving, doing yard work, or home remodeling.

Francisco Galindo describes himself as a “utility man.” “I do everything,” he says.

Galindo says he once worked on a foundation of a house that was adjacent to a hill, and had drainage problems. “811 – nobody tell me about that."

Galindo says he’s never hit a gas pipeline on the job, but he has struck a plastic irrigation pipe. He says it would be safer to be aware of what’s in the ground before digging, but admits he’s hesitant to call.

“I’m not so sure the homeowners will want me to call 811,” he says. “Sometimes they don’t want problems with the city.”

Zhou Hua Liu has worked as an independent contractor on remodeling, plumbing and electrical jobs for homes and businesses throughout the Bay Area.

Liu says although he’s worked on projects that involved digging such as “planting a garden and building a fence,” he’s never heard of 811.

"I have never gotten any injuries from work in the past,” he said. “ I know how to do my job and I am confident about it. Is it required to call [811] before digging? It sounds like extra work.”

In the past, contractors who damage pipelines without calling 811 may have walked away without penalties, but that could change.

Last year, lawmakers addressed the issue of damage caused by pipeline strikes and the effectiveness of 811 in a Senate subcommittee hearing, chaired by state Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo).

Hill says the committee found enforcement gaps that he is looking to address with pending legislation, which he plans to introduce next year.

Statewide, PG&E and Sempra Energy are working with the Contractors State License Board to put pressure on licensed contractors who hit their pipelines, because they failed to call 811.

“What we want to do is change the behaviors,” explains Aaron Rezendez, 811 Public Awareness Supervisor in PG&E’s Damage Prevention Dept.

The utility is also beefing up public education around the issue and has held 30 workshops in its service territory, reaching 2000 professional excavators. “We’re seeing an increase in awareness,” Rezendez says.

Summer Chiang contributed reporting.