Know what’s below

A simple phone call can save a lot of headaches and possibly even a life. That’s the message that North Dakota One Call took to the public Monday, taking advantage of the Aug. 11 date to remind residents of the importance of calling 811 before they dig.

North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk joined Ryan Schmaltz, education director for North Dakota One Call, and utility and pipeline company representatives at a news conference in Minot to stress the use of 811 not just by excavation companies but also by homeowners and small businesses.

“When we have damages,” Kalk said, “third-party damage is by far and away the biggest cause. … The biggest thing that causes them is something we can control.”

Awareness of One Call is helping reduce those damages.

“It’s hard to measure just how much,” Kalk said. “Because until we reach zero, we have to keep working on it. But I think we have done a lot of good out there.”

Kalk said awareness, rather than increased incidents, has raised the number of complaints filed with the PSC. Companies are reporting the incidents because they know the state is enforcing the requirement to call first.

The PSC has levied fines ranging from $500 to $5,000 since enforcement began in 2011. Fines can be as high as $25,000. Kalk said the PSC is considering asking the Legislature for the ability to revoke an excavator’s license, too.

“The goal is always compliance, but having that ability to enforce also is important,” Kalk said.

Damages by third parties is expensive and inconvenient for utilities.

Tom Rafferty, community relations manager for Verendrye Electric, said most of the cooperative’s customers have been affected at some time by line damage caused by third parties. Just last week, Verendrye linemen were out on an emergency call to repair a power outage caused by a third party.

North Dakota Common Ground Alliance, an industry group, also is working on the issue. Kevin Archer with Whiting Petroleum, chairman of the North Dakota alliance, said the goal is to get stakeholders talking about excavation dangers and working together to prevent them.

Schmaltz said it is best to give 48 hours notice before digging to allow utilities adequate time to respond. People can call 811 or go online to ( Authorizations to dig now are good for 21 days rather than 10, which is reducing the number of total calls by eliminating many repeat calls.

Still, calls have been up 25 to 30 percent every year, Schmaltz said. Activity is up not just in western North Dakota but across the state.

Last year, One Call received 200,000 contacts. From those contacts, One Call made more than 1 million calls to utilities to locate lines.

“This year will beat 2013,” Schmaltz said of the numbers.

The biggest change isn’t the numbers, though, Kalk added.

“The biggest thing that has changed is the tolerance of those who don’t use 811,” Kalk said. “There’s zero tolerance. The risks are too high.”