The article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on October 15. See the original article here.

Don’t dig up trouble

Notify BC 1 Call before breaking ground

This fall, you might be tempted to dig a hole in your yard to put in a fence or remove an old tree stump. If you’re spending more time in the yard while working on your laptop or hosting your “bubble” while the weather holds, you want it to look nice.

Getting out your shovel seems like no big deal. That is, until you hit a piece of underground pipe or cable. Then there’s a call to emergency services, a possible power or natural gas outage to your block, potential evacuations, risk of injury, and a big bill later.

So, it can be a huge deal, and one that’s entirely preventable.

“Homeowners should be mindful with what they do in their yards, considering that in British Columbia we have more than 100 years of infrastructure sitting underground,” says Dr. Dave Baspaly, executive director of the B.C. chapter of Common Ground Alliance, an industry collective focused on preventing damage to underground utilities.

Under your property lie pipes, cables and wires transporting oil and natural gas, telecommunications and water. In B.C., homeowners, farmers, landscapers and contractors unwittingly cause more than three gas-line damage incidents every day, on average. And over 90 per cent of these incidents are preventable.

“If you damage something, you’ve got the potential risk of electrical hazards, natural gas hazards, and there could be a risk to public safety,” says John McMahon, director of safety and training for FortisBC, which delivers natural gas and electricity across the province. Here’s how to avoid damaging something when you dig.

Click or call ahead

To avoid striking any essential, and possibly dangerous, underground lines, just click or call BC 1 Call (1-800-474-6886) at least three working days in advance of digging. This free service generates what’s called a request locate ticket — that’s a good thing, it just means there’s a record of your call or online request.

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Staff at BC 1 Call will use a mapping system to locate your dig site and notify all members that have underground infrastructure on and around it. You will then receive an email with your ticket number and a list of members that have been notified of your request. BC 1 Call members will email you directly, within three working days, with details of the buried facilities in your excavation area.

“You can find out what you’re up against,” says Dr. Baspaly. BC 1 Call is free, as it’s funded by utility owners, local and regional governments, industry partners and First Nations groups that have an interest in protecting below-ground pipes and wires.

You’ll also get information about how to avoid damage while doing your project, which will include an explanation of how to mark out the locations of utility lines, to hand dig if there are underground cables or pipes nearby and advice to contact the utility provider if you need additional guidance.

BC 1 Call issued more than 200,000 locate tickets in 2019. “The vast majority of them managed to work safely on their projects,” says McMahon.

Trying times

With more people staying at home because of the pandemic, many are doing renovation projects. You and your neighbours don’t want to lose power, heat or the ability to connect to work or watch your fave TV shows during this time.

“Taking the time to submit a locate request to BC 1 Call is critical to your safety and the safety of your neighbours. Let’s remember that many more people are home right now relying on their gas, heat, internet and water supplies,” says Chris Hyland, president & CEO of BC 1 Call. “Also, if a line is damaged and repairs are needed, crews might not be able to maintain the mandated physical-distancing protocols while fixing the problem. This puts workers at risk to repair these critical services.”

McMahon notes that when crews do emergency repairs — FortisBC staff respond to every gas-line damage call in their service territory — it takes them away from important routine maintenance.

Meanwhile, because of more storm activity and fires, utility companies are increasingly burying their electrical and telecommunications lines.

The scope of damage

It’s tempting to think hitting a natural gas or a utility line could never happen to you. But FortisBC documented 1,069 incidents of gas-line damage in 2019, down from 1,202 the year before.

Of those incidents, most of them were preventable. “When we look at our numbers, we see that 64 per cent of those that damaged our system didn’t contact BC 1 Call,” says McMahon.

Most often, it’s contractors who have dug into gas lines — they’re behind 60 per cent of damages. The next is homeowners, who cause 30 per cent of incidents. To help reduce these percentages, FortisBC’s damage prevention investigators look into the cause of incidents and educate those responsible — focusing especially on contractors who’ve damaged gas lines more than once.

So, remember to click or call before you dig, but also make sure anyone you’ve hired to do renovations or landscaping similarly plans in advance.

When installing a deck or doing other yard projects, be mindful that B.C. has over 100 years of underground infrastructure.

Istockphoto / Getty Images

Raising awareness

Despite people being at home more and doing more home projects, B.C. residents are on track for an average year of gas-line damages.

“We’re slowly making change,” says Dr. Baspaly. “We’re working to make sure this is something just like seat belts. Or like wearing a mask these days. It’s just something we do,” he says of clicking or calling before you dig.

Groups such as BC 1 Call, Common Ground Alliance and FortisBC work with the BC Oil and Gas Commission, WorkSafeBC and TC Energy, along with The Community Against Preventable Injuries (Preventable), to raise awareness about the consequences of disturbing underground infrastructure.

“Listening to that little voice in your head that reminds you of the familiar phrase, ‘click or call before you dig,’ can prevent damage,” says Dr. Ian Pike, spokesperson for Preventable. “We’re here to remind you of what you already know: that these incidents are preventable.”

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