SJR 75

Joint Subcommittee Studying the Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act

September 19, 2000, Richmond

The joint subcommittee's second meeting focused on the proposed revisions to the State Corporation Commission's enforcement regulations and comments from interested persons regarding the Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act.

Proposed Enforcement Regulations

The SCC provided joint subcommittee members with an overview of proposed changes in program enforcement regulations. In December 1999, the SCC initiated a rulemaking process and invited public comment on approximately 65 damage prevention issues. On May 26, SCC staff filed a report with the commission proposing regulations that seek to expand and clarify damage prevention rules adopted in 1994. On June 14, the commission issued an order inviting comments on the proposed rules.

Though the proposed rules address a wide range of issues, four generated significantly greater interest. These rules call for (i) reporting of probable violations of the act by non-gas utility operators; (ii) responses to requests for data in investigations of probable violations; (iii) marking multiple utility lines located in the same trench; and (iv) maintaining accurate installation records for new lines.

Of these, the rule generating the most interest is the proposal requiring that incidents meeting certain thresholds be reported to the SCC's Division of Energy. For incidents involving electric facilities, the level is 1,000 or more customer meters affected or injury or death. For telecommunications facilities, it is 1,000 or more access lines affected. For cable television or combined cable television and telecommunication, it is 1,000 or more customers affected. For water and sewer facilities, incidents must be reported if they result in injury, death or serious impact on public health.

Information regarding interruptions in electric service and telecommunications service is currently filed with the commission pursuant to separate voluntary agreements with the industries, pursuant to the SCC's performance monitoring role. Cable operators are not now required to make such reports. In response to concerns regarding potential dual reporting requirements, SCC staff stated that procedures could be implemented administratively to avoid duplication.

Staff reported that the proposed thresholds are not likely to impose significant duties on operators. In 1999, for example, no incidents involving electricity facilities surpassed the 1,000 customer threshold.

The commission has scheduled a hearing on the proposed regulations for October 23, 2000. The commission expects to act on the proposed regulations prior to the 2000 Session. Any regulations promulgated by the commission will have an effective date of July 1, 2001, in order to provide the General Assembly with an opportunity to respond legislatively.

Public Comments

Speakers disagreed as to the need for the proposed rules, while a contractor and member of the act's advisory board endorsed the proposed rules.
  • Dominion Virginia Power criticized many aspects of the proposed rules as intrusive, impractical, and unenforceable.
  • Fredericksburg's city attorney urged the joint subcommittee to support the SCC in its damage prevention efforts.
  • A representative of contractors' associations in Northern Virginia and the Richmond area remarked that the consensus approach utilized by the SCC has worked so well that there are very few points of major contention requiring legislative solutions.
  • A Washington Gas representative raised issues regarding the SCC's authority to regulate, and require reporting of incidents by, municipal gas facilities and the Virginia Department of Transportation. He also suggested a clarification of what constitutes a violation.
  • A Lynchburg contractor criticized practices relating to the imposition of fines and the presentation of cases before the advisory committee and stated that the expansion of mandatory reporting requirements to non-gas utilities is beyond the scope of the act's terms.
  • Call center operators objected to the proposal to merge the existing notification centers and to hire in-house employees rather than use third party contractors, suggesting that using a third party vendor brings accountability to the system.

Concerns and Possible Legislation

Staff has been directed to prepare a list of concerns with the act raised either by joint subcommittee members at their first meeting or by speakers at the second meeting. Based on these concerns, staff is to prepare amendments to the act that may address these concerns. The chairman characterized the proposals as "straw man" ideas that are intended to serve as the starting point for discussion of issues.

An internet web page for this study will be established by staff. The list of concerns and proposals for amending the act will be posted to the site by October 1. Written comments to the amendments are to be submitted to staff by November 1.

Next Meeting

The joint subcommittee intends to hold its next meeting in mid-November. At that time, local governments and VDOT will be requested to discuss their reaction to issues raised at this meeting. Staff will provide information regarding the incident reporting requirements of other states' damage prevention programs. The joint subcommittee is also planning to review the possible amendments to the act and the reactions generated by the proposals.

The Honorable Bill Bolling, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Franklin D. Munyan