Get your paperwork in order before you dig yourself into a hole
CHESTERVILLE – Planting a tree? Digging a swale? Firing up the post-hole auger behind that old Massey Ferguson for a bit of fence-line improvement on the back forty? The farmer or contractor doing the digging had better possess a paperwork “locate” in his back pocket before breaking ground, or face a fine of $700 and as much as $10,000. Many may not know it, but moving dirt around – even on private property – has become a more complicated affair for farmers, rural landowners and tile-drainage contractors. Enforcement appears to have gradually ramped up on a decades-old Ontario law requiring the notification of utility owners before any type of digging – even with hand shovels – is permitted on any type of land anywhere in the province.
Chesterville cash cropper Dave Chambers says he was surprised this fall when he was about to use his backhoe to dig a new on his farmyard, only to be told by an unannounced visitor that he wasn’t authorized to dig across his own land without securing location information – known as a “locate” – from all of the potentially affected utility companies in his region. Chambers thought he was playing by the rules because Union Gas had already performed locates on the local gas supply he intended to connect to a newly constructed shop at the farm – the purpose behind the trench. But that didn’t cover the other utilities in the region whose locates are the domain of contractor Promark-Telecon Inc., as Chambers learned from the firm’s representative who noticed the equipment and pulled into the yard, asked to see the locates, then explained the law.
“So we quit,” the farmer said, noting the job was delayed a few more days while he got the locates and accompanying paperwork that proved what he already knew: No utilities intersected the planned trench. A locate involves paint markings on the ground as well as paperwork verifying the locates for each utility. In Chambers’s case, that included clearance from Trans-Northern, which does have a fuel pipeline about a mile away, he said. “I don’t have a problem with it if you’re not sure of the land,” the farmer offered, noting he spent two hours on the phone to arrange for the necessary additional locate services for Bell, Hydro One, and TransNorthern Pipelines. It wasn’t enough to furnish lot and conscession numbers, he added, with information on landmarks and intersecting roadways also requested as part of the process.
Even gas company workers on site at the time of the visit were unaware that additional locates were required from the other companies on his own private land, he said. Now better informed, Chambers said he recently requested locates, for the first time, prior to starting a small tile-drainage job. “I think everybody should know about this. It’s so easy to run into trouble,” he advised. “If you’re planting a tree, you have to have it done.”
“There are a lot of people not aware of it. Even in the city,” said Marie Claude, who answered the telephone at Promark-Telecon’s Nepean office. Claude confirmed that company representatives may visit dig sites that appear to lack locates but said it’s only done to provide information to the digger – not as a form of law enforcement. The Ministry of Labour actually enforces the call-before-you-dig legislation, which has been on the books for at least 20 years, according to Jim Douglas, president the Ontario Regional Common Ground Alliance (ORCGA), spearhead since 2004 of underground damage-prevention measures in the province. Officials with Ontario’s Technical Standards & Safety Authority also take an interest in the matter.
“I think the enforcement against not calling has stepped up the last five or 10 years,” confirmed Douglas, who pointed to growth in the utility-locating industry and changing public attitudes about health and public safety. “A lot of fines are being handed out proactively now – Now, Ministry of Labour inspectors will ask ‘where’s your locates,’ and if you don’t have the [paper] locates in your hand [on the job site] it’s a $700 fine.” Severed gas lines have caused fatalities, while massive costs have been incurred after communication lines were cut, he pointed out. ORCGA estimates annual damages to subterranean infrastructure in Ontario at $39-million. But the issue largely involves public right-of-ways as well as heavily developed private properties in urban settings, he said, pointing to the big-box and Walmart malls that proliferate across Ontario cities as examples. “On the farm end of it, it really doesn’t play into a lot of call-before-you-dig,” Douglas offered, though he quickly clarified that farms ultimately aren’t exempt.
The first call should go to Ontario One Call Ltd. – a not-for-profit corporation established in 1996 as a single call centre for locate requests in Ontario – but that’s usuallly not enough to meet the requirement. Since its inception “ON1Call,” as the entity is also know, has been hamstrung by the refusal of some utilities to participate in the one-call program. “I wish they had one agency to look after them all,” said Chambers, speaking from experience. A private member’s bill co-sponsored by a pair of MPPs across party lines aims to do exactly that. The Ontario One Call Act, proposed by Sarnia-Lambton’s Bob Bailey (PC) and Paul Miller of Hamilton East-Stoney Creek (NDP), would compel all of the players to join the ON1Call system.
ORCGA and Enbridge Gas Distribution have both endorsed the bill. Douglas said that reducing the number of required calls would “certainly benefit” farmers. “It just makes sense, and it’s going to increase safety for all people.”