A little muscle for Miss Utility 25th year: System for protecting underground lines lacks enforcement power.

September 03, 1996

MISS UTILITY, the Maryland organization that informs utility companies of excavation work in their service areas, observes its 25th anniversary this year, but hopefully not with a bang.

Anyone doing digging or excavating (except a homeowner) is required by law to inform the non-profit, Laurel-based organization two business days before beginning work.

Miss Utility then notifies all utilities with facilities in the area, so they can mark their lines and installations to avoid "hits" from construction equipment. The utilities that belong to the organization include gas, electric, water and sewer, telephone and cable TV companies.

Severed utility lines are serious business. A broken natural gas line near Westminster two weeks ago forced the evacuation of businesses and homes. Route 140, Carroll County's main highway, was shut for two hours. The line was sliced by a contractor laying telephone cable.

Fortunately, no one was injured and there was no resultant explosion. But in January 1995, another gas line explosion near Westminster destroyed a home, damaged 65 others and caused more than $1 million in damages.

So the Miss Utility system is not perfect. Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. incurred more than 1,500 hits to its utility lines in Maryland last year. Comcast Cablevision had several thousand such cuts to its underground lines.

In BGE's case, about one-quarter of the 1,509 strikes resulted from diggers who did not properly notify Miss Utility. Only one or two were caused by exempt homeowners who struck a buried utility line. Mismarked lines, outdated maps, contractor error or carelessness were other reasons, the utility says.

Despite its longevity, Miss Utility does not have enforcement powers. Firms that cut lines are sent repair bills by the affected utilities. Prosecution for non-notification is unheard of. Some counties require hand-digging of test holes near lines before using heavy equipment, but there's no state law.

Last year, in the wake of the Westminster explosion, Carroll County proposed a state law to require licensing of trench diggers. That idea went nowhere. But the continuing outages, service interruptions and potential public dangers from excavation hits require stiffer enforcement measures.

Pub Date: 9/03/96

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