The Journal Gazette
Friday, December 01, 2017 1:00 am


In the pipeline

Record fine NIPSCO's wakeup call on mapping

Call 811 before you dig. It's a simple step that can prevent serious problems. If you'll be working near underground pipes or lines, affected utility operators will send someone to mark areas you should avoid. Everyone from homeowners planning to plant trees in the backyard to contractors preparing to pour concrete for building foundations is advised to do it.

But that arrangement doesn't work if the utility  doesn't respond quickly and accurately.

In a settlement announced by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission on Wednesday, NIPSCO agreed to pay a $900,000 fine after the commission documented cases during 2015 and early 2016 when the utility either was unable to mark a natural gas line with precision or was unable to locate it within two days of a request. NIPSCO also agreed to take steps to ensure faster and more reliable responses. The commission found NIPSCO lacked “a sense of urgency” about updating the maps it uses to answer location requests.

It said the fine was “the highest in state history,” and the 261 property-damage incidents that triggered it were also the most ever contained in a single case. “To our knowledge, there were no injuries” in those mishaps, according to commission spokesperson Stephanie Hodgin.

But the perils are real. “Damages to underground gas lines during excavation can cause dangerous explosions, put strain on emergency response resources deployed to manage the safety of bystanders, and disrupt daily life in communities,” the commission notes.

NIPSCO is taking the message seriously, according to its director of communications, Nick Meyer. “We need to get better,” he said in an interview Thursday.

With 810,000 natural gas customers, the company has thousands of miles of underground gas lines crisscrossing 32 counties, and it fields 250,000 to 280,000 line-location requests a year. But some of its location data is still on “linens” – 30- to 40-year-old maps on linen paper, Meyer said. Such maps are less likely to be updated as quickly and precisely as digital records. In some cases, he said, the earth has shifted “a number of feet” over the years; in other cases, pipelines have been relocated but the maps don't reflect the change.

As part of its settlement, NIPSCO agreed to make new investments in technology and software, Meyer said. The utility will also be making quarterly reports on its progress and could face further fines if it fails to follow through. It has terminated the company it used to respond to digging inquiries and hired two new firms.

“The pipeline system itself is a safe system ... for the most part, among the industry's best,” Meyer said. “We're very confident in the safety of our system.”

But everybody from major excavators to weekend fence-post-diggers needs to share in that confidence when they put an earth mover or a spade into the ground. The commission has done all of them a service by insisting NIPSCO get better at providing timely, accurate information about its pipelines.

You make the call

At least two days before you dig, call 811, or 1-800-382-5544.  More than 1,000 Indiana utilities and other companies with underground installations are part of the network.  They will dispatch someone to mark the area to ensure you don't encounter their  cables or pipelines.

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