Calling 811 in South Carolina: It's a good idea, but it could be better

Today is national Call 811 day. This is the day intended to promote the usage of the national Call-Before-You-Dig number - 811 - which is intended to put callers in touch with utility companies to ensure that any underground utility facilities are marked before they dig.

Not surprisingly, that's not quite how it works in South Carolina, as well as just five other states in these United States where utility companies are NOT required by law to be members of the state's "One Call Center".

South Carolina is also one of just 18 states which do NOT require all utilitlies to respond to the caller, a widely-used industry practice known as "Positive Response", either by marks on the ground or an "all clear" notice. So if you call and there are no marks on the ground, that may not mean it's safe to go digging. We've heard from more than one Blogland reader who called, saw no marks, thought it was all clear after three days' wait, and hit unmarked lines.

These are the dangerous realities of the state's outdated laws on underground utility safety and damage prevention which were enacted in 1978, laws which may be so far outdated as to prompt federal intervention to force the state act in the interests of public and worker safety.

The sad truth is that in many states, reforms only take place after tragedies occur, such as what took place in Minnesota:

On Tuesday, July 8, 1986, a quiet neighborhood in Moundsview, Minnesota, was roused from its slumber when a wall of fire roared down that street. A mother and her six-year old daughter stepped out the front door shocked by the noise, frightened obviously, opened their door and were incinerated. Mailboxes melted. Trees wilted. The road buckled. A third woman was severely injured. Over a quarter of a million dollars in property damage was caused. The origin of the fire, a hazardous liquid pipeline running through this neighborhood.” Congressman James Oberstar (8th District) presented this chilling account of the Moundsview accident when he testified before the National Transportation Safety Board.

As a result of that horrific incident in Moundsview, the Minnesota Legislature undertook a study of pipeline safety and third party damages. Chief among the study’s findings was the recommendation that Minnesota enact comprehensive damage prevention legislation. This resulted in the passage of State Statutes Chapter 216D in 1987. The legislation, co-sponsored by Representatives Daniel Knuth, Dave Bishop and Senator Steve Novak, required the establishment of a statewide notification center to receive notices of intent to excavate from any person engaged in excavation activity. All persons who engaged in excavation were required to notify the call center two business days prior to the start of their work. The call center would in turn notify facility operators in the area of the excavation.

216D required the Commissioner of Public Safety to approve the formation of a nonprofit corporation for the provision of the call center services. The nonprofit corporation was to be governed by up to 20 directors, representing and selected by facility operators, excavators and other persons eligible to participate in the center. The only permanent board seat designated by the legislation is reserved for the Director of the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety. With the formation of the Board of Directors, Gopher State One Call (GSOC) was born.

Governor Haley Barbour has signed into law a bill to expand the "one call" network to every public and private company owning underground utilities.

This is what can happen when a construction crew accidentally cuts a gas line. Nine people went to the hospital after this Philadelphia, Mississippi explosion. One call could have prevented this from happening

Fortunately, South Carolina may not be heading down the same tragic path, as the need to reform these laws before a major disaster occurs is receiving the attention of a group of stakeholders in the construction and utility industries, as well as a bi-partisan group of legislators, who are working to craft a comprehensive consensus bill to amend these laws.  One effort, Senate Bill 1068, went to a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which stakeholder groups testified and pledged to work together towards the adoption of long-overdue reforms.

As someone whose job includes safety management, yours truly has been long-involved in these efforts.  At stake are the lives of my co-workers, as well as other South Carolinians, so you can bet I'll remain active in this much-needed reform effort.

As well as keep the Blogland readers informed as to how much progress we're making.

Stay tuned.

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