By Michael Downes
Natural gas has been a mainstay of Mississippi energy since the early 1900s, connecting residents, commerce and industry through a labyrinth of pipes that crisscross the state.
And while gas transmission companies have always sought to locate high pressure transmission lines in less-populated areas, as towns grow beyond their original borders, often those pipelines end up in places you might not expect.
Tim Mason, director of health and safety with Enable Midstream Partners, and a registered environmental manager, has worked in the natural gas industry for decades. He’s seen instances where all kinds of development goes on top of formerly rural infrastructure.
“I’ve seen pipelines located below high school football fields, golf courses and in close proximity to condos,” Tim said.
There’s nothing wrong with developing property that exists above underground infrastructure, and pipelines are by far the safest mode of transportation for this type of energy. But it’s important for the folks who inhabit that area to be aware of what lies beneath their feet.
In rural areas, there might be one landowner for several square miles. But a populated area might have dozens or hundreds of landowners along a pipeline — and each one of them eventually would like a new fence, tree or mailbox.
That’s why it’s so important to call 811 or go online before any digging activity, Tim said. The gas industry does a good job of monitoring their pipelines and maintaining signage at road crossings and long Right-Of-Ways. But that doesn’t alleviate a home- or business-owner’s responsibility to contact Mississippi 811 two-working days before they plan to dig.
“Our employees are responsible for pipeline patrol, making sure they are adequately marked,” Tim said. “We make sure they’re marked line-to-line on roads.”
Tim said crews often come up with creative ways like inlaying markers in concrete to denote pipeline crossings as a less intrusive way to mark a pipeline, but still make it obvious that a transmission pipeline is present.
Where can I dig?
If you plan to dig anywhere in the United States, you’re required by federal law to call 811 or submit a ticket online and wait a specified period of time (usually 48 hours or two-working days) for the utilities in the area to either be marked or for the utility companies to respond that they have no facilities in that area. In Mississippi, state law requires that you call at least two, but not more than 10-working days in advance of the planned work.
Whether a high-pressure transmission line or other utility should cross the proposed worksite, existing utilities should be treated with respect and kid gloves. And the location of the underground facility should never be taken for granted.
Utilities sometimes aren’t where they are expected to be due to erosion or relocation, so always dig with caution and use safer digging techniques like vacuum excavation and potholing around known facilities.
“As an operator, many times people have asked ‘how deep is a certain pipe?’” Tim said. “That’s not a good question, because we live in a dynamic environment. Don’t assume it’s deeper and safe to dig, even if you’re going to dig where you don’t see markers. You still need to call 811 to ensure there aren’t any buried utilities that can cause an issue above ground.”
We all live, work and play near multiple kinds of underground utilities. As long as we treat them with respect and deference, the risk of ever encountering them in person is unlikely.