North Dakota One Call has received a record number of requests for utility-line marking this year.

State law requires that One Call be notified before someone digs deeper than 12 inches. With an increased amount of building and development in the state, the number of calls to the utility line marking service has more than doubled.

Calls are up 59 percent from October 2011, with 181,767 incoming calls through October 2012, said Chad Olson, director of education and public relations. He said the increase started several years ago with oil development.

Calls have gone down in other states because of the poor economy, Olson said.

After One Call has been contacted, the service notifies the utility companies — including cable, telephone, gas, electric and water — with lines in the area. More than 1 million calls have been made to utility companies through October.

Larry Wittmayer, system supervisor for Capital Electric Cooperative, said the company has done 6,955 utility line location projects so far this year, compared with 5,878 this time last year. He said new building accounts for many of them, but many also are being done in rural areas where other utilities are replacing lines. The number of cut cables has stayed the same.

“Some of these companies are doing 200 to 300 “locates” a day,” said Commissioner Brian Kalk of the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

Wittmayer said the company has been able to keep up with the work, but other utility companies are struggling. Leonard Hibl director of key accounts and marketing for Roughrider Electric Cooperative, said the company has to send someone out every day to locate utility lines.

Like other companies in the oil field, Roughrider is having difficulties finding employees, Hibl said. The company has had to use existing staff, which takes linemen away from their regular work and makes it harder to keep up with line expansions and other big company projects.

“Hopefully we can get through those (big projects) this year,” Hibl said. “Then, maybe next year we can get some relief.”

Hibl said the company may start contracting work out to a utility marking company. Montana-Dakota Utilities Company already does that, using ELM Locating. Josh Hinrichs, ELM’s chief operating officer, said the company’s increase in the number of utility location projects has been in line with what North Dakota One Call has seen. ELM operates nationwide and Hinrichs said North Dakota has been one of the hardest states in which to keep up with calls. He said the company had to bring on more staff and now has a record high number of employees in the state.

“It’s certainly been challenging to adjust,” he said. “North Dakota is one of the more dramtically impacted (states).”

Precision Utilities Locating is another locating company. Owner Kelly Rodgers locates some utilities for Mountrail-Williams Electirc Cooperative but most of his work is for oil companies installing pipeline. He said the difficulty is not so much keeping up with the number of utility lines to identify but doing it in a timely manner, He said he can’t get too far ahead of the excavators or his markers fall down.

Rodgers just started his company in January this year. He thought it would be a part-time venture on the side but he now works 60 hours a week, has two full-time employees and brings in seasonal workers during building season.

North Dakota One Call is paid for by contractors who call in asking for utility line locations and by utility companies that are notified when that work needs to be done.

When the contractors call in, they’re charged $1.25 per “locate.” Utilities are charged $1.25 per locate.

North Dakota One Call is under a three-year contract with One Call Concepts, Olson said. He said the price has gone down because more calls are coming in. Four years ago, the price was $1.40 per locate. The One Call board gets 15 cents from each call to pay for advertising.

North Dakota One Call hires One Call Concepts to field requests made in the state. One Call is overseen by an eight-member board, which requires that callers are not put on hold for more than one minute and that each call is processed in less than 10 minutes.

Olson said by using One Call Concepts, North Dakota One Call has been able to stay on top of calls coming in.

On Monday and Tuesday, when the service is most inundated with calls, One Call Concepts can add operators to keep up.

After a request has been made, utility companies must mark their lines within 48 hours. If a locate is not done or a line is struck by someone digging, utilities or contractors can file a complaint, an informal one with North Dakota One Call and a formal one with the PSC.

The PSC looks at both sides and decides if a fine should be issued.

Fines can be up to $5,000 per occurrence. Kalk said the commissioners take into account the number of times a particular company has caused damage and if an injury happened as a result.

The first complaint was filed 21/2 years ago, Kalk said. A total of 19 complaints have been filed since then. In all but one case, the company that did the damage agreed to pay for it on top of being fined.

The number of complaints this year has doubled over last year, with 10 filed this year and five filed last year.

“I think there’s more awareness,” Kalk said in reference to the PSC complaint process. “I don’t think there is more of this (line damages) going on.”

Olson said many of the contractors in the state are very good about calling for utility locates. He said those who don’t may think they are saving time but if there is damage, it shuts down a project until the utility can come to fix it.

“Whenever there’s damage, it costs everyone time and money,” Olson said.

Mark Hanson, a spokesman for MDU, said the company had a lot more lines hit this year.

“We’re already busy trying to keep up with just the growth and it takes guys off to do repairs,” he said.

If companies dig without calling One Call first, they risk injury to their employees, too. Hitting a gas line could cause an explosion; hitting an electric line could cause electrocution.

“By utilities using One Call, they’re potentially saving the life of the person doing the digging,” Kalk said. “We’ve seen other states with pipeline disasters. That’s the last thing we want in North Dakota.”

To help utilities companies keep up and encourage builders to use One Call, two new proposals will be introduced in the coming legislative session, Kalk said.

The first bill would make a locate good for 20 days rather than 10 days, to cut down on the number of relocates that have to be done. The second bill would raise the maximum fine from $5,000 to $500,000.

Kalk said many big companies are not worried about such a small fine as $5,000 and risk digging without having utility lines marked.

“The goal is not to fine people. The goal is compliance,” he said.

Kalk said the PSC also is working with the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office to deny the renewal of business licenses for repeat offenders.

“The program (One Call) is solid but we could make it better,” he said. “We want to keep the old infastructure safe and build new infastructure to keep up with growth.”

People can make a marking request through North Dakota One Call by calling 811 or 800-795-0555. Requests also can be made online at www.ndonecall.com .

Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com.

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