Joint Subcommittee Studying the Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act
July 10, 2000, Richmond
The joint subcommittee commenced its review of the Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act, which was enacted in 1979 and substantially revised in 1994. As there has been no legislative review of the program since its inception, this study provides an opportunity to determine if its efficiency and effectiveness can be improved.
Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act
Staff provided the joint subcommittee with an overview of the provisions of the Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act, which imposes duties on excavators, regional notification centers, and operators, and a summary of the substantial legislative changes to the act since its enactment.
Implementation of Program
An SCC official provided joint subcommittee members with an overview of the act's implementation. The SCC's role in enforcing the act commenced with the enactment of the 1994 amendments that authorized the SCC to promulgate rules to enforce the provisions of the act and to issue civil penalties.
In 1995, the SCC conducted a survey of 22 operators, of which eight were natural gas companies. Survey data revealed there were 3,287 incidents, of which 1,138 involved gas facilities. Only nine of the 1,138 gas facility incidents had been reported to the SCC under its voluntary reporting rule. In March 1996, the SCC, pursuant to pipeline safety regulations, began requiring all jurisdictional gas utilities to report excavation damages. The number of gas facility damages per 1,000 tickets issued has declined steadily from 4.49 in 1996 to 2.31 through the first five months of 2000.
Another measure of the program's success is the increase in the number of ticket requests. From 1995 through 1999, the number of requests has increased from 675,923 to more than one million.
The SCC reported that since January 1995, it has received 11,772 reports of probable violations of the act. Of the 10,546 closed reports, 41.5 percent were found to be probable violations by excavators, 30.9 by operators, and 0.1 percent by notification centers. Another 27.5 percent of the reported probable violations were dismissed. In this period, $2.9 million in civil penalties have been assessed. More than 52 percent were assessed against utility locators only, and 33.4 percent were assessed against excavators only.
Virginia's enforcement procedures have been recognized as "Best Practices" in the federally sponsored 1999 Common Ground study of one-call systems and damage prevention best practices. An important element of an effective program is acknowledged to be public education. While the "Miss Utility" and "Call Before You Dig" initiatives have been successful, the SCC is embarking on a new program to educate and remind excavators of their major responsibilities under the act. The new campaign's message is "Always CARE! -- Keep Virginia Safe," with CARE being an acronym for Call before you dig; Allow the required time for marking; Respect the marks/flags; and Excavate with care. The SCC has planned short-term and long-term education efforts to create statewide recognition of digging with CARE, increase frequency of the message to problem groups, foster partnerships, and monitor campaign performance.
Proposed SCC Rules
In December 1999, the SCC initiated a rulemaking process and invited public comment on approximately 65 damage-prevention issues. Proposed specific rules and regulations were identified in a report filed by SCC staff on May 26, 2000. The revisions seek to expand and clarify damage-prevention rules adopted by the SCC in 1994.
The proposed revised rules require reporting of certain probable violations of the act by non-gas utility operators. Currently, such operators may, but are not required to, report such violations. Other proposed rules address emergency excavation and demolition procedures, marking of underground utility lines, notification center data update requirements, excavator responsibilities regarding underground lines, record-keeping by operators, and site inspections by excavators. The SCC is currently seeking public comments regarding revisions to the existing rules governing enforcement of the act. The commission expects to issue final rules effective July 1, 2001.
The SCC is also in the process of establishing a task force of stakeholders to study issues not addressed by the proposed rules. Several of these issues have been deemed to require statutory changes. The commission's goal is to reach consensus for possible legislative action in 2002-2003.
Notification centers are required to be certified by the SCC. The act requires that there be one notification center certified for each geographic area. Currently, Virginia is served by two notification centers, each of which maintains a toll-free telephone number for inquiries: the Northern Virginia Utility Protection Service, Inc., and the Virginia Underground Utility Protection Service, Inc. Both of the centers, which are non-profit, tax exempt corporations, currently contract with third parties to conduct their operations.
The chairman of the center serving southern Virginia noted that the notification centers are considering two major changes in their structure and operations. First, the two centers are moving to consolidate into one entity, Virginia Utility Protection Services. Consolidation is viewed as a means to reduce confusion and achieve economies of scale. SCC certification of the new, single notification center will be required.
The second change under consideration will bring the centers' operations in-house, as has been done in North Carolina and several other states. This change is expected to reduce the costs per call to members of the centers from a range of between $.96 and $1.09 to between $.30 and $.40. Other expected benefits include greater control of operations, improving relationships with excavators, and easier institution of new technologies. Under the plan outlined to the joint subcommittee, the work will be brought in-house as existing contracts expire in 2002 and 2003.
Concerns Voiced by Members
Members of the joint subcommittee identified several concerns with the act and its implementation. Public reactions to, and suggestions for improving, these issues may be offered at the subcommittee's next meeting.
The joint subcommittee's second meeting will feature a report by SCC staff on the proposed changes to the rules implementing the commission's authority to enforce the act. The meeting will include a public comment period during which interested persons will have the opportunity to express their opinions and concerns with the act and its implementation, including the proposed changes in the SCC's rules. Persons intending to speak during the public comment period are requested to notify staff prior to the meeting.