Averting disaster

Gas line drill teaches importance of proper excavation procedures

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS During a gas line drill scenario, excavators unwisely decided to begin digging near a known natural gas pipeline location before going through safety protocols outside of Melbourne Wednesday. As a result, the demo saw the pipeline burst and the spotter, at right, got injured and had to be rescued by firefighters and EMTs.

A pipe bursts. High-pressure gas flies into the air, and the risk of an explosion grows every second. That’s what can happen if natural gas pipeline is ruptured during an excavation project, and the same scenario was demonstrated at the Iowa LICA Farm in Melbourne Wednesday.

“The best way to plan for an excavation is well in advance of the excavation itself,” said Iowa One Call Public Relations and Marketing Manager Ben Booth during as the gas line drill unfolded before hundreds of personnel.

There were two scenarios at the event, one done with correct safety procedures and the other done without those steps.

“We issue warning letters to people, and we track, if we have repeat offenders,” said Assistant Attorney General of Iowa Jacob Larson. “It’s important to comply for a number of reasons: safety, resource allocation for emergency responders and the state and your company, and it’s the law.”

During the incorrect scenario, two excavators arrive on a future digging site where, unbeknownst to them, a natural gas line runs underground.

“Hopefully they can apply the proper procedures; something tells me that maybe they won’t,” Booth said as the scenario began.

Despite the risk, one excavator hopped into the large, yellow back-hoe nearby while the spotter helped him begin digging. Neither called Iowa One Call or did any close inspection of the site.

As the claw of the machine struck the ground, white steam screamed up. The excavator jumped from the back-hoe and ran away from the scene. The spotter fell “injured.”

Area emergency personnel arrived on-scene shortly thereafter, and firefighters set up a “wall of water” spray formation to keep the “gas” from igniting or exploding. Meanwhile, a second team got the spotter out on a stretcher.

In a correct scenario, excavators arrive on-site well before digging begins to get a lay of the land and check for potential hazards, like underground pipelines. They must then spray a white line in the area to be excavated and call Iowa One Call at 811 at least 48 hours before digging, per state law.

A professional pipeline operator will inspect the area and designate if digging can occur or if there are hazards that have to be discussed. At Wednesday’s demonstration, the operator put up small yellow flags as markers of a natural gas pipeline. Larger, yellow pipeline markers were set nearby beforehand.

“When you’re at a site and you see pipeline markers, there’s information on those markers, typically that’ll have the contact information,” Booth said. “You want to always write that down and have that ready in case you need it.”

He said the pipeline itself isn’t always directly underneath such markers, a common misconception. After inspecting the site, the pipeline operator calls Iowa One Call, and a message is relayed to the excavator about the site’s status. Discussions can then be held if there is a conflict with digging.

“This is very much compressed, but the good news is, it’s not that difficult,” Booth said. “What we want to do is establish the safest standards possible.”

He added good communication is key to a safe excavation process, as is following state law.

“Iowa One Call is but one tool for damage prevention,” Booth said. “Knowing your surroundings, preparedness … communications between all parties involved, this is just as essential as making that notice.”


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