April 2022 Vol. 77 No. 4


Industry study takes hard look at 811 process, facility locating



Eben Wyman is a veteran advocate for key underground utility and pipeline associations. He points out that maintaining an effective advocacy program is fundamental to the success of any organization interested in the happenings of the federal government. He can be contacted at eben@wymanassociates.net. 

Responsible stakeholders involved in underground facility damage prevention know and promote the process as a shared responsibility among all stakeholders involved. Excavation contractors have long pointed out the increasing challenges related to responsibilities held by operators to locate and accurately mark their facilities prior to excavation activities according to state law. 

By Eben Wyman, Wyman Associates

Problems with facility locating on the rise 

Many of these challenges were highlighted in a handful of states only a few years ago, when certain facility operators were cited for not responding to or being blatantly late in responding to tens of thousands of locates. After local road projects were delayed because of lags in locating and marking of underground facilities, local media attention highlighted the problems that professional excavators have been complaining about for decades. 

At a time when excavation construction is at an all-time high, and much more is on the horizon after landmark infrastructure legislation enacted in 2021, protecting underground infrastructure during excavation activity is more important than ever. 

One major concern that has become clear is that many of the decisions made on what gets located and when, are based on costs and economic considerations, not solely on safety and compliance with the law. Ironically, many of the costs associated with excavation damage end up being covered by the operators themselves, and in many cases, passed on to the ratepayers and other consumers. 

Unfortunately, outside of anecdotal evidence, industries involved in excavation construction have not had the data requested by state and local governments to take these positions seriously – until now. 

New study looks at economic factors 

In November 2021, five associations representing construction contractors released a new industry study providing an in-depth examination of 811 operations in every state and Washington D.C. The study shows that damage costs and the increased risk to public safety could be substantially reduced if many states adopt more effective practices and procedures already in use in other parts of the country. 

The study, “811 Emergency,” was commissioned by the Infrastructure Protection Coalition (IPC) made up of associations representing broadband, electric, natural gas, pipeline, transportation, water and sewer, and other industries that design, construct, maintain or locate subsurface infrastructure, with both union and non-union workforces. These are regular users and stakeholders of the 811 system who want to see it run safely and efficiently. 

811 Emergency was conducted using a thorough review of records, regulations, laws and enforcement actions across the country. Upon release of the study, several leaders of these associations made the case for this investigation. 

“Ultimately, ratepayers are picking up the tab for this waste and bearing the public safety risk,” said Tim Wagner, a coalition member, and president and CEO of the Power & Communication Contractors Association (PCCA). “Some states have figured out how to work this system safely and efficiently, and there’s no reason others cannot do the same.” 

Underlying reasons contributing to extensive waste 

The review found waste and cost overruns largely were caused by four main reasons: 

  • Over-notification by excavation contractors that leads to utilities and third-party locators needlessly sent out to locate lines for construction projects that end up not happening
  • Poor instructions and faulty maps given to locators, causing wasted time or additional work
  • Locate marks destroyed by construction and then needing to be reinstalled
  • Contractor wait times when location efforts exceed the legal notice period

This over-notification can be attributed to the fact that contractors don’t know what will get located and when. So, in order to ensure their crews are not shut down when facilities aren’t located on time, they call in an overabundance of locate requests. 

This study comes at a critical time for the nation’s infrastructure. Passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will result in tens of thousands of miles of infrastructure construction, all of which will take place near existing underground utilities. Consider these historic investments pending as IIJA is implemented, including: 

  • $65 billion for broadband infrastructure ($42 billion for construction)
  • $73 billion for improvements to the electric grid
  • $55 billion for water infrastructure
  • $343 billion for surface transportation
  • $1 Billion for municipal gas distribution replacement
  • Billions for carbon capture, use and storage demonstration projects
  • Billions of projects to increase use of hydrogen as a main future fuel source
  • Billions of dollars for “brownfields,” Superfund sites, etc.

Sponsors highlight need for investigation 

IPC members include the American Pipeline Contractors Association (APCA), Distribution Contractors Association (DCA), National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA), Nulca (representing utility locating professionals) and PCCA. Many sponsors of the study sounded off on the long-time need for this national evaluation. 

“The important message here is that this is an imminently fixable situation. We can dramatically improve the system to improve public safety and cut waste with a combination of law, regulation, and process changes mirroring what the best performing states are already doing,” Wagner said. 

“All too often, the discussions of damage prevention and how it relates to pipeline safety focus on the importance of calling 811 prior to excavating,” said APCA President Taylor Dacus of Troy Construction. “We need to better consider the challenges facing the facility locating process and the underlying reasons behind the increasing number of locate requests that are responded to entirely too late or are unanswered altogether.” 

Rob Darden, CEO of DCA, agrees. “This study takes a deep dive into areas of damage prevention that don’t get enough attention,” he said. “Preventing damages to underground facilities takes more than calling 811; facilities have to be located and accurately marked – on time – according to state law. Increasingly, these responsibilities are not being met in the field, and the impacts are being recognized across the country.” 

In addition to describing the underlying reasons for these increasing challenges, 811 Emergency includes national recommendations that encourage states to provide no exemptions in the damage prevention state law, require damages to be reported, and ensure balanced enforcement, among other needed actions. The study suggested that policymakers may need to restructure the state’s penalty structure to provide effective and equitable enforcement of state law. 

Other recommendations include development of a third-party damage prevention board, establishment of effective performance metrics, requiring a “positive response” by operators when they fulfill their locating responsibilities, and a commitment to strive for continuous improvement. 

Upon release, the study was provided to a range of federal and state agencies that oversee the nation’s pipeline safety program, as well as industry organizations. 

“Recognizing the recent enactment of comprehensive infrastructure legislation, we hope government entities will consider the findings of this study when damage prevention statutes are evaluated,” Darden stressed. 

“Damage prevention is only possible when all key stakeholders meet their responsibilities in the process. This study provides needed information about what works and what doesn’t in state law, as well as recommendations for improvements to state damage prevention programs at a time when activity in the underground infrastructure markets is expected to increase significantly.” 

Doug Carlson, CEO of NUCA, commented, “The foundation of damage prevention is that all excavators notify their 811 centers, and that all underground facility owners belong to their 811 center and accurately locate and mark their facilities in a timely fashion, according to state law. 

“Excavation contractors are facing increasing challenges related to facility locating, and it’s become clear that the problem of facility operators failing to meet their locating and marking responsibilities is getting worse. This report does a good job of identifying and analyzing the underlying reasons for this, which is becoming a bigger and bigger problem every day.” 

While sponsors of the study have received some pushback, this was anticipated. There were some minor inaccuracies regarding state statutes; a process was quickly implemented and corrections were made. Now it’s time for the hard part – educating federal and state policymakers about the need to address these challenges and encouraging change in federal and state damage prevention statutes and enforcement practices needed to improve the entire process. 

We’re in this midst of the largest buildout of American infrastructure in history, and effective damage prevention will be paramount. The sponsors of this study will encourage open minds and thorough discussion with a range of policymakers in the coming months and years.

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