Contractor violations, guesswork lead to spike in broken utilities

Call before you dig. It’s the law, but it’s not always being followed, and that can lead to broken utilities, inconvenience, and danger.

Even if the call is made, there’s a lot of room for error after.

In June 2015, an inferno on Kapahulu Avenue burned for hours after a road crew hit an unexpectedly shallow gas line.

“It was all according to code,” said Del Won, from the Public Utilities Commission. “They hit this little blip in the line where it was not as deep as the rest of the line, and so they fractured the line.”

Then, in January 2016, traffic was snarled and shoppers were trapped in parking lots when city rail contractor Kiewit ruptured a gas line. Within weeks, Symphony Honolulu construction crews broke a line and shut down Ward Avenue.

They’re all part of a growing trend in excavation accidents. There were six water line breaks and five sewer line breaks by third-party contractors last year – more than five times the two line breaks in 2014. For other utilities like gas, telecom and electric, there have already been two so far this year in January alone, the same number as all of 2015.

“It’s hard to know. We might not get any more the rest of the year, hopefully, knock on wood,” Won said. “Obviously where there are violations of the one-call procedures, we become very concerned.”

The “one-call” Won refers to is a first step required by state law: call a number, give it a few days, and all the nearby utility companies come mark where their lines are.

Thousands of those calls take place every year, growing right along with the hot construction market until last year, when calls plummeted while building soared.

Always Investigating asked, how can construction be way up and calls to the call center be way down?

“The explanation for that is that the relationships between the number of permits, building activity, and the need for excavation which the on-call center would receive is not necessarily linear,” Won said. “There can be a lot of permit activity which does not necessarily require excavation.”

The accident report filed about the recent Symphony gas-line break says a subcontractor never placed that call before excavating. View the accident report online here.

For those who do make the call, that’s just the first step. A lot can and does go wrong from there. Take the rail builder’s case:

“Possibly what happened is the markings may in fact wash away where the excavator cannot locate the line,” Won said, especially when contractors wait too long between the call and the actual dig.

The PUC has hit rail contractor Kiewit with a Notice of Violation, obtained by Always Investigating. In it, the PUC says its investigation found Kiewit started its work way too late, having called the one-call center way back in November 2015 for work that didn’t start until January 2016. It’s supposed to get it done within a 29-day window.

Hawaii Gas told the PUC it’s not even sure if Kiewit was digging at the place they marked, or somewhere different. View the accident report online here.

PUC says Kiewit also didn’t hand-dig first, basically poke around before bringing in the heavy equipment because, as Won explained, “when the utility marks where they believe their lines are, there is a margin of error.”

When asked if he would expect a contractor that big to know better than start digging with a backhoe, Won responded, “You would think.”

People in the heavy equipment business say they keep it top of mind.

“Whenever we rent an excavator to our customers, we make sure that we ask them, what’s the terrain, have they looked at any kind of utilities,” said Brian Pestana, CEO and president of Bob’s Equipment. “It’s really educating the public, public awareness.”

Awareness is something state regulators acknowledge that government may need to be more proactive about.

“What we need to do is find the best avenue to remind contractors that there are these requirements so we can avoid these situations,” Won said.

Even with the one-call and the marking, there’s a lot of guesswork about what really lies beneath.

“Many of the underground utility lines are very old. They were laid a long time ago,” Won said. “I don’t believe that there is anywhere that is holding ‘as-built’ drawings. It’s sort of an estimate. ‘It’s about here that we laid the line.'”

Near the Pearlridge rail line though, the location couldn’t have been more clear.

According to what Hawaii Gas wrote to the PUC, Hawaii Gas had relocated the subject segment to its current location for the rail project in December 2014. It said the actual location of the segment that was broken was noted on Kiewit’s as-built plans for the area.

Kiewit declined to go on camera for this story, repeating instead an earlier response to KHON2 that it has “taken key steps to ensure this situation doesn’t happen again” and “disciplinary action has been taken.”

Always Investigating asked as the contractors for rail continue and get closer to town, does the adherence to the one-call policy and procedure become more important?

“Absolutely,” Won said. “As you get closer to the more urbanized areas, I would expect just in sheer numbers, you would have more underground utility lines, so you would hope again these excavators are very judicious about following those procedures.”

“Absolutely find out what’s below,” Pestana said, “or you can get into tragedies where you lose power to a whole community or you’re endangering the machine. You’re endangering yourselves, neighbors.”

The PUC Notice of Violation to Kiewit sets a March 9 hearing. We’ll keep tabs on what comes of that, which could include fines in $5,000-per-day increments.

We’ll follow up with the PUC on what further steps are taken to remind contractors not only to call, but to follow the rules when the digging starts.

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