Excavating any site can be risky. Even when all the proper procedures are followed, the 20 million miles of underground facilities can cause dozens of complications. Maps can be incomplete, locators can mark improperly, and excavators can misjudge their dig.

At its worst, these mistakes and oversights can result in serious injury or death.

But even when no lives are on the line, failure to comply with damage prevention laws, much less best practices, is no less serious. Damage prevention and facility safety laws, regulations, and best practices are calibrated for public safety and economic efficiency. Disregarding them is not only unlawful, but dangerous and inconsiderate.

The dangers of excavating are obvious: breaking ground with power tools into unseeable possibilities regularly results in severed electrical and communication lines, water mains, and hazardous natural gas pipelines.

To prevent this, excavators – including homeowners and landscapers – call their state One-Call center (at 8-1-1) two or more days before they dig. That call center notifies all the utility companies with pipeline, cables, wires, and other facilities in the area. They send out locators to mark the ground with color-coded spray paint to reveal surface-level information about the location and type of facility. Then the excavator can safely begin to break ground, guided by the spray paint and flags marking the area above the dangers.

When any step in this process is ignored, the chance of an excavation damage incident skyrockets. Already, about a quarter of all excavation damage incidents in America result from failure to notify a one-call center. Implicitly, the remaining percentage means that notifications have likely been made and someone else down the line failed to comply with the law or best practices.

A Minnesota telecommunications provider offers a lesson on this failure to comply. CenturyLink, after receiving notification of excavators’ intent to dig from the state’s authority, failed to send locators to mark the areas during a high-construction period. This left excavators blind. And it happened hundreds of times. Similar issues go back years. While CenturyLink mainly left its own facilities exposed to risk, the problem is much larger and more costly than that.

From this failure to locate and mark their lines, numerous construction crews exposed cables and wires during digs. If CenturyLink had internalized all its costs, this might be the end of the story, but their actions created externalities that impacted individuals, businesses, and more.

When construction crews identify excavation damage, they have to shutter on-site operations, at least until the facility is identified, the owner is notified, and it is safe to continue work. This can, and did, result in construction delays and economic losses. If the cables are severed, and not just exposed in a near-miss incident, it usually means loss of service. Customers – whole neighborhoods, apartment complexes, small businesses, or critical care or food providers – lose their access to telephone, Internet, or other services until the line is repaired.

The construction delays and service interruptions are all costs imposed on others innocent in the process. The company that fails to follow the rules of locating and marking the area is at fault, but forces others to bear the consequences. In the case at hand, the consequences caught up, with a total of $2.25 million in penalties for CenturyLink.

The process is safer, faster, and more economically efficient when all parties do their part. Excavators must notify their intent to dig. The call center must notify the utility companies. The utility companies must send locators to adequately mark the site. And the excavators must be diligent to observe best practices to carefully conduct their excavation without causing damage.

It may seem like many steps, but when everyone completes their part, it can work seamlessly and cost very little in compliance. The alternative is lives lost, injury, and delay on the front end – and millions of dollars in penalties on the back.


Read our latest report analyzing the rise in excavation damage incidents.

Learn more about Damage Prevention here.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.