Utilities urge digging caution in wake of cut lines, sewage spill

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comOctober 31, 2012 

On Oct. 13, hours before one of the biggest University of South Carolina football games in recent memory, more than 1,000 television sets across Bluffton went black.

A Time Warner contractor digging in the area accidentally severed one of Hargray's fiber cables, leaving many in the Moss Creek area of greater Bluffton with no way to watch their team play LSU in primetime at home.

It is a worst-case scenario for Hargray executives-- their customers are without cable, and though the outage was caused by someone else, it is Hargray's responsibility to fix the problem.

And fix it fast.

"Customers don't have service, and even though it's not our issue and not our fault, they're still out," said Andrew Rein, the company's vice president of sales and marketing. "We will settle the bill with the contractor who did the damage, but that doesn't do anything for our customers."

By the time service was restored, the game was over.

Incidents like that, and an October sewage spill near the intersection of Buckwalter Parkway and U.S. 278, have prompted utility companies like Hargray and the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority, to urge contractors to call them before digging so their lines can be clearly marked and thus less likely to damaged.

Such notification is required by a state law, which mandates that contractors and homeowners contact the Palmetto Utility Protection Service at least 72 hours before work begins.

The service then contacts utility companies, which must respond within that 72-hour window to mark its lines with color-coded flags.

Line-marking is provided free to contractors and homeowners by the utility companies, according to SCE&G.

It doesn't matter if those doing digging are contractors laying new fiber-optic cable or a homeowner digging a hole for a mailbox post -- they must contact the utility service.

Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $1,000 against the contractor or company by the S.C. Attorney General's Office, according to state law.

Companies could also seek damages in civil court, the law stipulates.

Mark Plowden, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said fines for such incidents are rarely sought.

"DHEC has generally viewed these instances as accidental," Plowden said. "However, if there were a case of a recalcitrant contractor or utility, we could take an action since it would be an non-permitted discharge to the environment. The most common, and the type of enforcement action people see the most, are the fines."

Once a spill or outage is fixed, contractors and utility companies must negotiate the cost of responding to and repairing the damage, as was the case with this month's sewage spill, according to BJWSA spokesman Matthew Brady.

"We will recoup our costs associated with the (repair) from them," said Brady, who did not know the name of the company whose crew damaged the pipe.

The final bill for the recent spill has not been finalized, he said. Repair costs typically range in the thousands of dollars, utility officials said.

But that doesn't always repair relationships with customers.

Rein said the company does its best to pacify sometimes irate customers.

"Whether we offer bill credits or something similar depends on the facts of that particular outage," Rein said. "Two years ago, we had a large Internet outage that lasted several hours and it was absolutely our fault. We issued a lot of credits after that. It's harder to do though when we didn't cause the outage."

Utility officials say they expect the problem to linger as road widening projects continue on S.C. 170 and U.S. 278, work that caused Hargray officials to complain loudly earlier this year after their lines were cut more than five times in a single week.

Officials say the recent problems were not related to either project but that contractors and homeowners alike must be careful where they dig.

"Ninety percent of these situations can be avoided if people are following the rules," Rein said. "If you're unsure about where to dig, don't guess. Call us. Otherwise, everyone loses."

Related content

  1. Hargray cable cut again; no customers affected, Oct. 26, 2012
  2. 10,000 gallons of sewage spilled into Bluffton holding pond, Oct. 18, 2012
  3. Hargray calls foul on outage conspiracy theories, Oct. 15, 2012

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