This is what happens when we don’t find a way to police the soil beneath our communities.
City of BendOre. This is what happens when we don’t find a way to police the soil beneath our communities.

Wish I could say I came up with that catchy headline, but I didn’t. It’s the title of a presentation from last year’s American Public Works Association (APWA) convention.

APWA’s Utility & Public Right-of-Way Committee explained why looking the other way is no longer an option vis-à-vis abandoned utilities. In addition to limiting space for new installations and creating confusion when trying to locate lines, they’re dangerous. A few years ago, a plumber cut into a natural gas line that had been bored through the sewer he was trying to clear. The house blew up.

Miraculously, no one was hurt.

That’s an example of two live lines, not abandoned lines, but the issue’s the same: It’s time to end the Wild, Wild West approach to the underground. We’re very near the point, and some jurisdictions have reached it, when it’s less expensive to do it right the first time than fix it after the fact.

Horizontal directional drilling (HDD) enabled public and private utilities to avoid existing utilities by burying new lines under them. Thanks to this quick fix, intersections and rights of way in the nation’s most populous areas are webbed with utilities from near the surface to so deep, they’re becoming an issue for proposed gravity sewers. There’s no more room.

This is a financial, as well as safety and engineering, issue. Utilities that remove abandoned lines from their inventory to avoid being taxed endanger crews out in the field who assume the maps they're working with are correct and take money out of public coffers when it’s most needed.

Until recently, public agencies haven’t received much support for pushing the issue. That’s changing, though. According to the presentation, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin identify owners and make them pay for removal (or crushing in place) when/if necessary.

Other solutions are to charge a leasing fee (although I don’t know if anyone is doing this) or working with private utilities to repurpose assets. At least one telecommunication company has run ran cable through decommissioned pipelines.

Is this an issue for your department? If so, what have you done about it? E-mail