Sometimes it takes a tragedy for people to drive a little slower, think a little longer or plan a little earlier. On Dec. 5, heartbreaking news spread through the ag community as farmers, friends and neighbors learned about Lee County farmers Rory and Ryan Miller, a father and son killed after accidentally striking a buried gas pipeline while installing field tile.
“Accidents can happen to anyone — even experts,” says Rae Payne, senior director of business and regulatory affairs with Illinois Farm Bureau.
“There are damages to gas pipes every day in Illinois,” adds Bill Riley, pipeline safety and one-call enforcement director with the Illinois Commerce Commission. “Oftentimes, it’s not digging carefully around them or not calling before digging.”
Details surrounding the Lee County tragedy are still under investigation. In the meantime, Payne and Riley offer six things to know and do before digging in fields or ditches or on farms.
1. Call JULIE: It’s the law. Whether you are planting a tree, digging a fencepost, reshaping a waterway or laying tiles, call JULIE (Joint Utility Locating Information for Excavators) 48 hours before any excavation work begins. “Really, it’s any time you pierce the soil surface,” Payne notes. Normal tillage is the only agricultural exception, but Payne suggests calling before running deep tillage or rippers. Several lines may lurk below, like natural gas, petroleum, electrical or fiber optics. JULIE representatives will need information, such as the type of work and where the project will take place, including the county, township and nearest intersection.
PIPELINE FINDER: The National Pipeline Mapping System shows pipeline locations by county, but Bill Riley, Illinois Commerce Commission, says it should never be used in lieu of calling JULIE. Exact pipeline locations can only be marked by utility company representatives.
2. Signs indicate pipelines in the area, not precise locations. Signs are posted where pipelines cross highways, railroads or other rights of way, Riley says, like the yellow tented mile markers on roadsides for gas pipelines. Signs do not indicate a precise pipeline location, he says, and farmers should always call JULIE for location assistance.
3. Pipelines can shift over time. Pipelines are required by law to be buried at least 36 inches deep, Riley says. However, Payne cautions that pipelines may “float” over time and rise to the soil surface. “Never assume it’s too deep to worry about,” Riley says, adding that gas line mains near roads could be shallower than 36 inches.
4. Double-check third parties that are coordinating the project. Farmers working with a tile company or other third party for a project should make sure the company calls JULIE before work begins, Payne says. It’s the third party’s responsibility to contact JULIE, but the farmer or landowner should ensure the call is placed and lines are marked.
5. Gas providers will work with you. Within 48 hours, JULIE will be on-site to mark gas lines, fiber-optic lines and power lines with flags and spray paint. For fields with belowground gas pipelines, Riley says the gas company will be on-site the day you dig.
6. Give the marker flags a wide berth. Utility markers allow for 18 inches on each side, Payne says, which means the pipeline may run anywhere within a 3-foot area. The safest way to work around the area is to keep heavy machinery far away from the flags and to move soil by hand if needed, he notes.
With frozen soils across Illinois, farmers have time to plan out excavation projects. That plan starts with a call to JULIE. For utility location services, dial 811 for the Illinois One Call System or JULIE’S 24-hour toll-free number at 800-892-0123. Information is also available on JULIE’s website under “Excavators.”
“At the end of the day, we just want everyone to go home safe,” Riley says.