Cross-bores have taken center stage in damage prevention talk throughout the underground construction industry, especially those involved with trenchless installation. The attention has helped educate stakeholders, but cross-bores are still very much a problem.
It’s been eight months since Trenchless Technology probed the then hush-hush topic of cross-bores, the instance when a newly installed utility intersects an existing utility. (See three-part series “Facing Cross-Bores,” Trenchless Technology October, November and December 2006.) Trenchless industry leaders singled out gas lines cross-bored through sewer laterals as the most dangerous variety because of the threat of piercing the gas line and sparking an explosion that could destroy a house or otherwise damage property and injure and kill people.
Just such an incident happened in March 2006 when a plumber accidentally cut into a gas line with a drain cleaning machine as he attempted to unclog a sewer lateral at a house in Middletown, Ohio. The plumber smelled the gas and rushed a woman and her three grandchildren out of the house moments before it exploded. No one was injured, but the incident spurned trenchless advocates to become more proactive about preventing cross-bores in future projects.
However, prevention of future cross-bores does not fully address the issue. What about those already in the ground? Cross-bores can go undetected for years. The industry also must address legacy cross-bores to eliminate the problem.
During the past year, committees have been formed and positions have been taken, but there remains more education to be done. It used to be that cross-bores were considered a sensitive topic. Now the stakeholders in the industry are able to address cross-bores in a more robust and open conversation, says Mark Bruce, chairman of the NASTT Cross-bore Committee and president of pipe manufacturer Can Clay Corp. Part of that turnaround, he says, is the acknowledgement that solutions exist for locating and verifying whether a cross-bore occurred for both current and legacy construction.
“We feel that there has been a maturing in understanding of the needs of the industry related to cross-bores,” Bruce says. “In some places in the country, there has not been a real strong desire by utilities to invest in cross-bore investigations because they feel their processes have been good in the past. But in some areas, cross-bores continue to be high profile and they are addressing them through best construction practices and through post-construction verification projects to make sure cross-bores have not occurred.”
Throughout the trenchless industry, contractors and clients have begun developing good procedures to reduce the possibility of cross-bores during construction, which has created more openness and dialogue, Bruce says. The continued education about the issue improved prevention and verification processes through normal evolution of construction practices.
“The recognition that there are solutions has given confidence to companies to increase their prevention processes and also has given the clients, the owners of the gas utilities, confidence that there are solutions that are manageable and they can include cross-bore prevention in their construction [design] documents,” Bruce says.
Enforcement, a Benefit
Increased awareness and education has helped mitigate cross-bores. However, statewide or federal legislation that requires contractors to notify operators and utility owners to locate facilities is not always followed, says Walt Kelly, an underground facility damage prevention consultant who has served as an expert witness in courts cases that have involved cross-bores and other underground construction damages. During the last eight months, however, he is not aware of any new legislation being approved.
The Common Ground Alliance (CGA) rallied federal support for a new catch-all one-call number. The group launched 811, which is designed to eliminate confusion regarding multiple “call before you dig” phone numbers, in May. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) designated 811 as a national number that connects callers to local one-call centers.
The number could further reduce damage, but Kelly says that with the number just coming online, it’s too early to tell. “Hopefully, that will get more people calling that haven’t been calling so far,” he says. However, some contractors believe that not every underground construction project deserves notification.
“People say, ‘There’s nothing there. There is no need for me to call. I’m not digging that deep,’ especially with sidewalk and driveway type of work,” Kelly says. “They think that they’re not going to be digging where there’s going to be another utility.”
Enforcement, Kelly says, will help eliminate that trend. Legislation needs enforcement to make it stick.
“Most state statutes implicitly require laterals to be located. But even with the requirement,” he adds, “we still need to have effective enforcement in the states and easy, simple administrative enforcement, complaint driven, that ensures the laws for locating and marking the line and the laws for exposing the facility are followed.”
Enforcement can be as simple as a letter and a proposed fine for not notifying a one-call center or failing to properly locate and mark. A letter can be an education tool that will often change behavior, even if the fine is suspended. If there is another violation, the fine should be high enough to get the guilty party’s attention, but not so high that they will fight it, Kelly says. The benefit will be that the contractors and facility owners will pay more attention to calling, locating and exposing buried infrastructure and thereby prevent damage.
“Without enforcement, we will continue to see more incidents than we need to,” Kelly says. “If the incident is bad enough, it will generate new legislation. And legislation generates regulation. And if the incident is really bad, that regulation and legislation is going to be a whole lot tougher than it ought to be because people are really miffed.”
Party of All
The stakeholders in underground construction have the best opportunity to address cross-bores. That is, if they are proactive about prevention and elimination.
A multi-party approach, Bruce believes, is the best way to engage contractors, manufacturers, municipalities, drain cleaners, HDD advocates, utility owners and utility locators in an industry-wide discussion about damage prevention and safety. Neglecting to do so will denigrate the use of HDD and pneumatic piercing tools and other trenchless methods. Bruce says the industry needs to “give confidence [to city leaders] that directional drilling and other trenchless installations can be done in a safe manner and verified so they can protect their community.”
Some organizations, such as DCA and NUCA, have adopted position statements that relate to cross-bores, arguing for which party is responsible for locating and marking facilities. NASTT has taken a less rigid stance on cross-bores.
The group strives to be non-political and provide solutions and education, not point fingers, Bruce says. “We’re not the ones positioning for who is responsible financially for cross-bores,” he says. “We have broad representation that gives us a great opportunity to hear all sides of the discussion so that we’re not trying to implement very narrow, focused goals. Our goal is to find solutions, not who is responsible for cross-bores.”
Kelly notes that in a number of states, municipalities have been locating and marking laterals because it’s, “the right thing to do,” and at least one major communications company has been offering to drop electronic markers when they expose laterals. “That’s the kind of cooperation we need,” says Kelly.
Cross-bores have gained more attention industry wide, but the issue has gained some national attention as well. Thanks to articles in this publication and others, cross-bores have become an open topic. Kelly, for one, says that is a very good thing.
“Don’t be surprised if you find significant governmental interest in the cross-bore issue in the near future,” Kelly says. “It could very well promote discussion, awareness of the problems and how to best address them to avoid damage.”
Even though cross-bores have become a less taboo topic, some companies are still recalcitrant about publicizing the issue. Companies that have had success with preventing and eliminating cross-bores need to share their findings with the industry, Bruce says.
“For the most part, these are not groundbreaking processes that had revolutionary changes with equipment,” he argues. “We just need to share it, the best of the best, with the rest of those in the industry and then those companies involved can make decisions based on this higher level of knowledge.”
As well as industry leaders have strived to educate those involved with underground construction about cross-bores, Bruce and Kelly agree that more needs to be done. The more that cross-bores and damage prevention are talked about, the less that cross-bores and damaged facilities will be a problem.