Committee wants MS to get tougher on digging laws

By Danielle Thomas - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Since Hurricane Katrina millions upon millions of dollars have been spent rebuilding a massive amount of coast infrastructure. It's work that some local officials say they don't want to see undermined by people who choose not to call before they dig.

The Mississippi Public Service Commission is sponsoring meetings across the state to figure out how to better protect underground utilities from damage. Officials say what's come out of the Damage Prevention Committee meetings so far is that Mississippi needs to pass stronger laws.

Even with all the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, officials say it wasn't the storm itself that wreaked havoc on South Mississippi's underground utilities.

Jay Street is one of the committee co-chairs.

"Actually the utilities survived the storm fairly well," Street said. "Unfortunately, many facilities were damaged in the cleanup. When debris was piled, and they came back and removed that debris, gas meters were damaged and pipelines were struck. Utility lines had also been damaged. "

Because of the extensive damage, crews across the coast are busy replacing including water lines, sewer lines and other infrastructure. Long Beach's mayor says in his city alone the price tab will run about $24 million.

"Utility companies, along with our utility water and sewer. A lot of hard work has already been done in some areas," said Mayor Skellie. "AT&T, cable companies and Center Point, they've already replaced so much of that since the hurricane. It's very important to protect it so you don't dig up something that you've finished and you're doing a patch job."

Now utility companies, local government and private contractors looking for ways to protect utilities say one problem is that the state's "call before you dig" law is very weak.

"On occasion there are folks that just will not do what they should do and follow the state law. The state of Mississippi has lacked very detailed enforcement.  No teeth in the law. We're hoping that's what we'll be able to do in this upcoming legislative session is to put some teeth into the law," Street said.

Recently, the federal government has passed more stringent laws about digging.

"They've allowed it to the states to really kind of set our own path," Co-Chair John McDill said. "So what we're trying to do is discuss here in Mississippi is what's the path that we want to travel to make sure that we can meet the federal standards towards encouraging participation and safe damage an digging practices."

Officials say asking first and digging later not only saves money, but perhaps lives.

"Failure to call before you dig could certainly at worst cost someone to be hurt or possibly killed," Street said. "If they dig into an electrical line or a high pressure gas pipe line, certainly extreme and terrible consequences could occur."

Officials remind people that before doing any excavation work always call 811 to find out where there are utilities present. There is no charge for the service.

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