The world beneath our feet is vibrant and complex. Although we cannot see it and often do not think about it, tens of millions of miles of pipelines, cables, and wires run across the country just underfoot. Every time a shovel or power tool makes contact with the dirt to begin a home project, landscaping development, construction action, or other excavation work, there is significant risk to the person digging and potential costs that will ripple throughout the community.
Excavation damage – or pipeline strikes – to buried infrastructure happen all too often. Everyone from homeowners to professional contractors are constantly digging and moving earth and very often damaging what is below. When they do, the outcomes include minor scrapes with water lines, complete severing of electrical or telecommunications lines, or even fatal contact with natural gas lines that lead to violent explosions. Over half a million of these types of incidents happen every year in the U.S., primarily impacting telecommunications lines and natural gas pipe. These two in particular, but all excavation damage to buried utilities, cause serious negative externalities that largely affect innocent and vulnerable populations.
When a buried facility is damaged, there is a direct cost. That is often the cost to repair and remediate the pipeline or product that may have spilled from hitting it. The direct costs may even include project delays or harm done to personnel on scene. If we call this cost 1, it represents the whole total of direct costs. Next are the indirect costs.
The costs that ripple through the community, but are not directly tied to the excavation damage include project delays, lost productivity, traffic, emergency vehicle response, lost of services like cable, internet, water, and electricity, and more. This number, in relation to direct costs is 30.
Together, this means there is a 30:1 relationship of costs between indirect and direct. Already, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of costs and impacts are borne by parties uninvolved in the excavation work itself or even related stakeholders. These costs often affect bystanders and communities in the region of the excavation work, not always the excavator, locator, or utility owner.
The 30:1 multiplier makes clear that the community, not the construction and utility personnel are the ones being primarily impacted. But the location these excavation damages take place reveal another disparate impact and highlights how the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities often bear the brunt of excavation damage, and why reforms to the damage prevention system nationwide – including improvements to the 811 Call Before You Dig program – are so essential.
According to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), over 37 percent of pipeline excavation damage events impact disadvantaged communities. These communities are considered disadvantaged or underserved due to factors relating to the quality of and access to infrastructure, transportation, environmental status, and others. A key commonality, is also proximity to natural gas distribution infrastructure.
In the U.S., millions of miles of pipelines traverse the country, but natural gas distribution lines are particularly concentrated in urban environments where population density is high and economic wellbeing is varied. Excavation work in these areas puts natural gas lines at particular risk, and in locations that are less economically vibrant, it is not uncommon to have construction or maintenance work that damages pipelines and go unreported and unrepaired. Gas leaks or even pipeline nicks that do not sever the line but diminish its integrity can lead to future issues, the most dangerous of which are explosions.
Gas leaks can lead to the evacuation of entire homes, businesses, or apartment complexes. Explosions can level buildings and impact city blocks. These high-end risks do happen and they can be deadly and lead to multiple injuries. Other less headline-grabbing incidents also impact these communities, including damage to water lines, telecommunications cables, power lines, and others, which can leave disadvantaged communities without safe water, sewage services, internet access, or electricity for hours or days on end pending repairs.
All together, the direct and indirect costs that emanate from the excavation damage numbers in the U.S. total an estimated $100 billion annually. That means every single year, excavators, utility owners, innocent bystanders, and disadvantaged communities are bearing a hundred billion dollar price tag that is avoidable.
With reforms and improvements to the damage prevention system – such as greater use of one-call center websites (rather than more calls to 811), improvements to ticket requests and scheduling, map-based notice and electronic white-lining, and enhanced positive response to equip excavators with more and better quality information before they put tools in the ground – we can reduce these costs, safe lives, protect infrastructure, and preserve the integrity, health, and safety of communities throughout the country.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Executive Director
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.