Frequent strikes on buried utility lines pose dangers, prompt calls for legislation

There were almost 3,000 reported strikes to underground utility infrastructure in Alberta last year, and some are pushing for laws that would make it mandatory for people to call for utility location information before they dig.

Groups pushing for legislation to mandate a 'call before you dig' policy for builders

Some are pushing for laws that would make it mandatory for people to call for utility location information before they dig. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

A contractor working on a highway construction project near Grande Cache last year struck an underground Telus line, leaving the town of 3,000 people without Internet service — not to mention the ability to use the phone or buy something with a credit card.

The incident was one of almost 3,000 reported "damages" to underground utility infrastructure in the province last year — the second highest number in the country, according to the Canadian Common Ground Alliance, which gathers regional data on strikes to buried utilities.

Those strikes affect gas lines, telecommunications lines and electrical lines that twist and snake underneath the ground, like a "3D puzzle that's located in the dark," according to one industry worker.

"It's not just telephone services, it's connectivity," said Grande Cache Mayor Herb Castle. "It's email; you can't use your credit card to buy gas. It has far-reaching implications. It's very crippling when it happens."

The true number of "damages" is believed to be much higher, since reporting to the alliance is not mandatory. In addition, the Alberta Energy Regulator in 2017 did not meet the deadline for reporting damages to the assets it oversees, meaning hundreds of strikes were not counted. There were more than 4,000 recorded instances in Alberta in 2016.

Those numbers — and the increasing reliance on Internet connectivity — are driving a push for provincial legislation that would make it mandatory for anyone digging near utilities to call for an underground line location service, and for utility owners to register their assets with the Alberta One Call corporation.

"From a political point of view, our people were just up and arms," Castle said about service disruptions to his town. The damage on the Telus line happened several times during highway construction, each time leaving residents unplugged for up to 24 hours while repairs took place.

Mill Woods evacuated when gas lines hit

In Edmonton last week, some Mill Woods residents were evacuated from their homes after a gas leak near 37th Avenue and Mill Woods Road. ATCO has confirmed the incident was related to a contractor who hit a gas line while doing directional drilling in the area.

In that same neighbourhood, 40 years ago, a serious hit to a high-pressure pipeline line forced 18,000 people from their homes. An excavator nicked a pipeline, then sparks from a delivery truck ignited propane vapour, causing an explosion, according to a local newspaper article at the time.

Watch: The original news report on the explosion from March 2, 1979

On March 2, 1979, a gas explosion causes more than 15,000 people to be evacuated from the Edmonton neighbourhood. 1:42

That kick-started the formation of Alberta One Call, the non-profit organization that collects line location data from almost 800 members, said Mike Sullivan, who heads the non-profit corporation.

"Back 20 years ago, we weren't relying anywhere near the amount on the telecommunications that we are today," he said. "Before it was pipelines and things that go boom in the night [that made people worried]."

Legislative changes have made it mandatory for nationally and provincially monitored pipelines to register with Alberta One Call, meaning their line locations are on file. These days, telecommunications lines get hit almost as often as natural gas lines.

"There's so much reliance on telecommunications for banking, financial interactions, services like 911 ... it's not Mrs. Jones not catching her soaps in the afternoon anymore. People can be dramatically affected, or even die."

Alberta One Call is meant to be the first point of contact for people who want to dig. The organization maps line location information provided by members, then alerts the utilities that might be affected by a dig. Those companies then mark their buried infrastructure before digging starts. Almost two-thirds of utilities in Alberta are registered with the organization.

Watch: Adam Grossberndt explains the difficulties in line locating

Adam Grossberndt advocates for new legislation in Alberta that would require builders to notify a registry before they dig. 1:27

But the Canadian Common Ground Alliance found that in 51 per cent of cases where damage was recorded, diggers didn't call for line information in the first place.

"There has been millions and millions of dollars spent on public awareness and education," Sullivan said.

"I think we've gotten as far as we possibly can after 34 years of One Call in Alberta, and all of the effort we've made to ensure people do the right thing. Legislation is going to take us to the end zone."

Ontario is the only province with what Sullivan calls "comprehensive legislation," which mandates both utility owners to register with Ontario One Call and builders to call to request "line locates" before they dig. He said pressure has been mounting on the Alberta government in the past few years to implement something similar, with organizations such as the Rural Municipalities of Alberta also calling for the change.

'Records are not always accurate'

Meanwhile, others are calling for better training for line locators, based on the increasing complexity of the underground network.

Adam Grossberndt, regional manager for Alberta Hotline, wants to see improved training for line locators. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"Locating is an art and a science and, in my opinion, it's not for everyone," said Adam Grossberndt, regional manager for Alberta Hot Line, a line location company.

"Records are not always accurate; they're not always up to date. There are many years of infrastructure in Edmonton —probably close to 100  — where there's a lot of things that never made it to records, that people don't know about it."

He thinks line locating needs to be a recognized trade in the province, and that those providing the service need more training.

Grossberndt's company has been called to do line location work during construction of the Valley LRT line. On that project, according to Trans Ed, there have been some buried utilities that were not as deep as records indicated. 

"We proceed cautiously at all times because we are not permitted to rely on past records," said Trans Ed spokeswoman Sue Hueman. "We recognize that Edmonton has been in existence for many years and some of the buried utilities were installed during times when construction standards and record keeping was not as advanced as it is today."

Grossberndt thinks people need to recognize the potential danger of any strike to an underground utility. 

"Yes, gas is very imminently dangerous, and a high enough voltage of power is instant death for somebody. But something as simple as cutting a communications cable (can hurt) someone who needed to make a phone call at the most important point of their life."