Early on the morning of March 4, the Oregon Department of Transportation sent out a short news release. There was a natural gas leak at the agency’s Murphy Road project in south Bend, and streets in the area were closed to traffic.
Officials evacuated people from a handful of nearby businesses and kept local streets closed for most of the day. It turned out that an excavation subcontractor on the project had hit a natural gas line.
Laura Lueder, a spokeswoman for Cascade Natural Gas Corp., said a utility location contractor who went out to look for pipelines in the area did not search for this specific pipe, because it was not on the gas company’s map. The incident revealed how little utility companies and government agencies know about some of the older pipelines and other buried utilities in the area. Everyone involved says they followed protocol, and little can be done to prevent these incidents.
“We do not have any service records on the line, so it was not on our map,” Lueder said. “If we don’t have a line on our map, the locator is less likely to look for the line.”
Companies generally do not share maps of their buried utilities with governments or residents in Oregon unless those parties ask for the information and the utility company believes it is necessary. Instead, state law requires excavators to contact the Oregon Utility Notification Center to request location services at least two days before digging. There is an exemption for private properties on which excavation is less than 12 inches deep and will not take place in an established easement.
Lueder said Cascade Natural Gas has better records of pipelines installed more recently, but this particular small steel pipe — which led to a vacant lot — was probably installed in the early 1970s. Lueder confirmed that gas was flowing through the line at the time a contractor struck it.
“It’s very rare for this type of situation to occur,” Lueder said. “We’re confident that our records and maps are completely accurate with more recent lines we’ve installed.”
Peter Murphy, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said agency officials have been discussing whether there was anything they could have done to avoid the gas line. “I know we did some soul-searching after that,” Murphy said. However, Murphy said there was nothing the state agency could have done to prevent the situation, because an excavation subcontractor followed the proper procedure of requesting utility location services and still was not told of the gas line. “We rely on the utilities,” Murphy said. “We generally do not do our own analysis.” Murphy said he was not aware of any similar incidents in Central Oregon where contractors struck gas lines in recent history.
Ken Maddox, business manager for Eugene-based Hamilton Construction, confirmed that local subcontractor Jack Robinson & Sons did call the state utility notification center to request location services, and the locators missed the pipe.
“It’s not very common, but it does happen,” Maddox said. “Even the locators miss things. … And on occasion, there are surprises.”
A project manager for Jack Robinson & Sons did not return calls for comment.
Lueder wrote in an email that under a franchise agreement with the city of Bend, Cascade Natural Gas provides the city with access to the company’s GIS mapping data. The company also provides the information to other government agencies and companies as needed, Lueder wrote.
Bend Public Works Director Paul Rheault said Cascade Natural Gas has a good history of quickly locating any buried lines where the city plans to excavate.
“I don’t think we’ve had any issues striking a natural gas line,” Rheault said. There are a lot of buried utility lines in some parts of Bend, and the city uses specialized excavation techniques in these areas.
“When we’re in an area where we know there are a lot of utilities, we don’t use a backhoe,” Rheault said. Instead, the city sprays pressurized water on the area and then vacuums up the soil with a specially equipped truck.
“It’s very, very important for us to have good, accurate records of where all these utilities are,” Rheault said. Rheault said he would like to have one master map of all utilities in the city of Bend, but it will be awhile before the city can build that. In the meantime, city crews will continue to call the state utility notification center to request location services. “When they come out and mark their lines, we’re trusting they’re pretty accurate,” Rheault said.
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