• Whack-a-mole: Finding those pesky underground utilities


    democratandchronicle.com

    Any holes being dug in your yard soon? Not holes dug by squirrels burying nuts but big holes? A utility company replacing a line, a contractor doing waterproofing around your basement, a landscaper planting a tree — those kind of holes.

    If so, make certain all the buried cables and pipes have been found and marked before shovel meets dirt. Ask the utility company if it's sure it knows where everything is, then ask it again. Insist that the contractor or landscaper double-check.

    Why? Because some insiders say underground utilities in the Rochester area aren't being located and staked out the way they used to be. They fret that severed electric lines and Internet cables could be lurking.

    Just don't expect me to explain why.

    Watchdog reporters, of which I'm one, get tips from the public all the time. Some lead to great stories. Some don't pan out. And some leave us scratching our heads because we can't figure out what's really going on.

    Normally, we don't mention the head-scratchers but here I'm making an exception.

    Since receiving a tip from a local landscaper a month ago alleging that underground utilities are going unmarked, I've made 10 phone calls and sent 12 emails to 11 people at 10 companies or agencies.

    I can tell you with certainty that the parties involved agree on almost nothing.

    Boiled down, here's what I've learned:

    Local landscapers say that when they have a job involving excavation, they call a centralized utility locator agency, Dig Safely New York, to request a "stake-out" to mark buried utilities with spray paint or flags.

    State law requires that utilities that provide electric, natural gas, water or sewer services mark the underground mains and lines that they own at any site where excavation is planned. Typically, these are the lines that run under the street. Utilities also have to mark the gas line between street and house. They're not required to mark anything else under private property.

    But a half-dozen landscapers insist all lines under private property used to be marked. They would show up and voila! Lots of flags in the grass. None of them can say exactly who was doing this, however. They assume that the folks who came out to mark the utilities under the street did the private-property work too.

    They claim things have changed recently. Those pipes and cables under the lawn are no longer being staked out. In some cases, they say not even the natural-gas line to the house is being marked.

    Laurie Broccolo, of Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care, says her employees have been told by field workers whose job is to mark those buried utilities that they no longer have time to do anything under private property.

    Broccolo said the field workers are pressed for time because the state Public Service Commission, whose job includes safeguarding buried utilities, has directed landscapers to request utility stake-outs even for low-impact jobs like aerating a lawn or cutting sod.

    That admonition from the PSC caused landscapers to make more calls for stake-outs to Dig Safely New York. That kept the stake-out crews so busy they no longer had time to mark utilities on private property the way they used to.

    So goes the landscapers' version.

    What's the countervailing version? That's simple: Nothing's changed, everything that used to be marked is still being marked. By extension, the landscapers are full of beans.

    James Denn, a spokesman for the PSC, acknowledged the commission "has been raising the level of awareness amongst utilities and third-party excavators about following the state’s damage-prevention rules." But he said nothing is different in terms of who is supposed to stake out buried pipes and cables.

    Officials at Rochester Gas and Electric Corp., the Monroe County Water Authority, the city of Rochester and Dig Safely New York said pretty much the same. They profess puzzlement at the landscapers' claims. Officials at a private company that utilities hire to do the stake-outs, Premier Utility Services, did not return two calls for comment.

    So there it is. That's all I know. As an investigative watchdog report, this one has few teeth.

    Still, this story has value because it allows me to impart a warning: Before you let someone dig a hole in your yard, make sure they're sure they know where all the buried utilities lurk.

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