Penalties toughen for digging up utility lines

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SPOKANE -- Digging up buried utility lines may give you the shock of a lifetime. But it will zap your wallet as well.

Anyone who fails to use Washington's free "Call Before You Dig" service and who unearths gas or electric lines faces stiffer penalties this year.

As homeowners, landscapers and excavators get busy outdoors each spring, utilities and state regulators ramp up their reminders to call 811 at least two business days before digging. It's required by state law and is intended to prevent injuries, property damage and outages.

Initial violations remain $1,000 but now rise to $5,000 for subsequent violations within a three-year period. Damaging a hazardous liquid or gas transmission pipeline can lead to a $10,000 fine and a misdemeanor charge.

"We wanted to send a message to people that this really is important and if you break the law then there's going to be some consequences to that," said Anna Gill, pipeline program specialist for the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Last year, 1,289 incidents of damage to gas pipelines caused by individuals digging were reported in Washington. The state hasn't collected damage reports on other types of utility lines but will do so beginning this year.

The UTC sought the stiffer penalties and more rigorous enforcement of the dig law during the 2011 legislative session, and the new law took effect Jan. 1.

Excavators and utilities now must report any damage to underground lines within 45 days. Previously, only damage to regulated natural gas and hazardous liquid lines had to be reported.

The new law also created a 13-member dispute resolution board to hear complaints of alleged violations and recommend enforcement action to the UTC. Anyone who thinks the dig law is being violated can file a complaint.

"The (811) system is used a lot, which is good, but it's hard to reach every single homeowner or nonprofessional digger," Gill said. "They don't always realize that there is that requirement. And unfortunately we don't have the funding to do a large outreach campaign to make them all aware of it."

Homeowners and professionals should know where buried utility lines are located before planting a tree, putting up a mailbox post, building a fence, or digging more than 12 inches deep in a yard or garden, experts say.

"You just never can be sure that you know where those lines are," Gill said.

When someone calls 811, a utility representative will come out and locate and mark all utility lines in the ground. Residents are advised to dig carefully around marked areas with a hand tool because buried electrical lines or natural gas pipes can be dangerously close to the surface. Accidental contact with a shovel or backhoe is risky and potentially fatal.