Years ago early in his construction career, Joe L. Williams and another worker dug a hole while planting a 10-foot oak tree in a new Germantown subdivision.
“We thought we were being careful but we cut into a gas line with a shovel,” Williams said. “It hissed like a snake. The other guy I was with knew what to do. He reached in like John Wayne with a pair of pliers and crimped the line. This was before cell phones so I ran back to the office and called MLGW.”
Williams who runs Joe Williams Construction in Memphis said the moment taught him a lesson: “I don’t care if it’s a flower bed or something minor, I always call before I dig.”
While the consequences for Williams luckily weren’t life-threatening, it can be.
To get the word out, MLGW is teaming up Friday (March 27) with local Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores to promote natural gas safety awareness from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The “Call 811 Before You Dig” day comes just in time for April’s celebration of National Safe Digging Month.
Last year, 233 gas lines in Shelby County ruptured from damage caused by digging. Another 82 gas meters were struck above ground with lawnmowers and other equipment. Such digs – either by folks not calling to find where their utility and cable lines are buried or from contractors who called but hit lines anyway – resulted in rotten egg-like fumes spewing into neighborhoods, business districts and rural areas.
Each year hundreds of homeowners, contractors and developers fail to call before they dig resulting in thousands of dollars in damages to busted gas lines.
Nationally, the Common Ground Alliance’s 2013 Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) pinpointed that one in four incidents resulted from someone failing to notify local authorities before digging. Homeowners or contractors using the wrong tools like a backhoe instead of a shovel caused about half of the reported DIRT cases.
“We have 181 miles of gas transmission lines and 4,800 miles of smaller distribution lines going to homes and businesses. The problem with this kind of leak is, it’s preventable,” said Clift Phillips, lead gas system integrity engineer at Memphis Light Gas and Water.
While it rarely happens, a single spark from a lit cigarette, a backhoe hitting concrete or pavement or even the buildup of static electricity at the rupture point could set off a deadly explosion.
Phillips explained why: “Gas lines can have up to 250 pounds of pressure. A car tire has 30 to 40 pounds of pressure.”
When installed, gas lines are required to be at least a foot underground. But over time with erosion and landscaping, the lines could be closer to the surface.
Last year, MLGW general foreman for facilities location Vic Sawyer and 15 of his workers spray-painted almost 64,000 areas where gas and other utility lines were buried from homeowners and contractors who called 811 before digging. The program which has been in existence since 1983 provides the location. Unfortunately locaters are unable to ascertain the specific depth the lines are buried.
So far, Sawyer and his crew have answered 7,318 calls this year for the free utility location service. “If you are piercing the earth, it’s time to call,” Sawyer urged. “If you are putting in a new flower bed, an irrigation system, a basketball goal or repairing your fence, you need to call us.”
Even when it is marked, diggers still run into trouble at times. “We were putting in a driveway on Shady Hall just off Mendenhall and hit a gas line,” said contractor James Shepherd. “It cost us $1,500 to fix it.”
While Shepherd thinks the 811 program is good, even if an area is marked, he added, “They don’t know how deep it is.”
For Williams’ part, he can’t understand why more contractors and homeowners fail to use the free service. “I’ve driven by other construction sites when they have hit stuff and you just shake your head,” said Williams. “Why didn’t you call?”
Who ya gonna call?
Call 811 at least three business days before you or a contractor starts digging so that underground lines can be marked for free
Call 911 or MLGW’s emergency line 901-528-4465 – if you smell rotten egg-like fumes, hear a hissing sound or see dirt blowing from a recently dug hole
Leave the area on foot before using cell phones, flashlights or other electric or battery-operated devices
Sources: Tennessee 811 and MLGW
Gas lines damaged in 2014
Shelby County homeowners or contractors damaged over 300 gas lines from either digging or a lawnmower or other equipment hitting gas meters. Here is where those potentially deadly ruptures happened:
Shelby County: 27
MLGW is the largest three-service public power utility in the nation, serving more than 421,000 customers in Memphis and Shelby County.