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Keven Moore: Every six minutes, a buried utility line is damaged; call before you dig

(Photo courtesy Tim McKune)

Operations Compliance Manager Tim McKune said Columbia Gas responded to nearly 120 dig-ins just in the Fayette County area alone last year. (Photo courtesy Tim McKune)


The snow has melted, the temperature is rising, plants are starting to bud, tax return checks have been cashed, and many of us stand ready to dive into that next big landscaping project.

The majority of homeowners take on these projects themselves, from building decks to planting trees to putting in swing sets to building fire pits. Others hire the work out to contractors. Either way, there’s a costly mistake that happens far too often: damaging buried utility lines while digging or excavating. These “dig-ins” threaten public safety and disrupt access to power, heat, water and communication services (which, by the way, is usually not covered on your homeowner’s policy).

Each week KyForward’s “resident riskologist” Keven Moore shines the light on America’s riskiest behaviors – from unsafe driving practices to workplace stress to common home accidents. And in the process, he provides the information needed to help people play it a little safer.

After responding to multiple dig-ins at the beginning of April this year, my high school classmate and friend Tim McKune, operations compliance manager for Columbia Gas, reached out to me to ask that I write this column to help educate the general public. The timing couldn’t be any better because April is “National Safe Digging” month, which serves as a reminder to all people who excavate or dig to call 8-1-1 to have the approximate location of their utility lines marked.

Whether you are a professional excavator or just a weekend warrior, every digging job – even small jobs such as planting trees and shrubs – requires a call to 8-1-1, the “Call Before You Dig” service available to all homeowners and contractors. It’s a free service; call at least 72 hours before a planned dig, and KY 8-1-1 will respond within 48 hours.

Digging without calling to have your utility lines marked is risky business because the depth of utility lines will vary. Plus, there could be multiple utility lines running through your yard that you may be unaware of. Damaging utility lines can disrupt service to an entire neighborhood, not to mention cause harm to you, those around you and the repairmen and women who have to respond as a result.

Tim McKune, Columbia Gas

Tim McKune, Columbia Gas

McKune said Columbia Gas responded to nearly 120 dig-ins just in the Fayette County area alone last year; that doesn’t include the number of other occurrences across the state or occurrences with any of the other utilities. So despite the creation of the Kentucky 8-1-1 and the “8-1-1, Call Before You Dig” campaign there are still way too many dig-ins happening statewide.

Last year, a Kentucky Senate bill was signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear, which added an additional $1,000 fine to the existing $250 penalty for damaging pipelines containing “any flammable, toxic, corrosive, or hazardous material lines” without calling 8-1-1 in advance.

In addition to the fines and penalties, the uninsurable costs could quickly add up into the thousands – if not millions – of dollars. Such an occurrence could result in labor and material repair costs, costs might include for repairs to property, costs associated with gas leakage, loss of revenue from nearby businesses, costs for payroll for emergency responders and the potential costs of a lengthy civil litigation.

“I think people would be surprised to know that every six minutes an underground utility is damaged because someone decided to dig without first calling 8-1-1,” McKune said. “This free call greatly reduces the chance of an accident.”

According to Tim Vaughn, director of KY 8-1-1, “people who fail to notify a local 8-1-1 call center before digging cause approximately 40 percent of all utility damages, and the other 60 percent comes from people that did have the lines marked, but still dug on top of the marked line not respecting the marking. If you remove those two mistakes we wouldn’t have very much of a problem within the state.”

(Photo courtesy Tim McKune)

(Photo courtesy Tim McKune)

To help you offset the cost of any potential repairs to your utility line, some utility company may offer “utility-line insurance” or some other form of coverage. These plans typically cost between $6 and $10 per month. In most cases, your utility line insurance plan will cover the cost to repair or replace your line up to a certain limit (usually around $4,000-$5,000), but this will not cover any of the other related costs (determined by the adjuster on the insurance policy).

Before you dig:

‣ Call 8-1-1 at least 72 hours prior.

‣ If you are hiring out the work, hire a reputable contractor that is licensed and properly insured so the liability doesn’t fall back on you, the homeowner.

‣ Verify that the lines have been marked by walking your property to visually observe the markings.

‣ Request current certificate of insurance of their liability policy with a minimum of $1 million liability.

‣ Become familiar with the color codes for each type of utility line so that you will know which type of lines cross your property.

‣ Plan your dig safely away from the designate markings once the lines have been marked.

‣ Become familiar with your gas, water and electrical cutoffs.

If you strike a utility line:

‣ If you detect the odor of natural gas (rotten egg smell) leave the area immediately. Do not try to locate the leak, and do not do anything that could cause a spark by using electrical devices, starting a vehicle, using light switches, telephones or even garage door openers.

‣ Do not try to turn off any natural gas valves; just call 9-1-1 immediately after you have reached a safe distance.

‣Do not re-enter any nearby buildings if you have struck a gas line.

If you strike a water line, know where the emergency cutoff is near the roadway. Attempt to turn it off, then call your water company.

‣ If you strike a sewer, water, cable or telephone line, notify your utility provider immediately. But it’s important to know that even a sewer line or water line can become life threatening if you are working in a confined space where engulfment could occur.


Everybody knows that utility lines can be hazardous, but especially when they are located underground where they are no longer visible. Even the most experienced safety-minded professional excavators will sometimes let their guard down and will try to take that one extra scoop with that backhoe.

In the end, the best risk management plan to guard against an expensive mistake or possible injury or death is to adhere to the “8-1-1 Call Before you Dig” policy and to respect the markings once you begin to dig.

Be safe, my friends.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

To read more from Keven Moore, click here.

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