By Brigham McCown
The natural gas explosion that leveled a popular restaurant in Kansas City a year ago this month was completely preventable. It is a textbook example of how using out-of-date practices in utility line marking and locating for construction excavation can lead to tragedy. Mistakes like this are not only preventable, they are in fact inexcusable, given the readily availability state-of-the art technologies designed to help avoid these kinds of disasters.
One would hope that safety should always take priority in policymaking. Most injuries in the infrastructure industry are the unintended consequences of individual actions in a risky environment, but as in this case, the final results stem from industry standards at an unacceptably low level. Professionals tasked with locating utility lines must ensure that excavations avoid hitting those lines, at all costs. When that doesn’t happen, the results can be catastrophic. In the case of this particular restaurant, the ultimate cost was one person’s tragic death and the injuries of 15 others.
This kind of tragedy need not occur. In the days, hours, and minutes leading up to the restaurant explosion, gas odors were ignored, one out of three lines near the restaurant was missed, and existing maps were likely ignored. To date, some 10 lawsuits have been filed, and the incident has the potential to damage the utility’s business viability. Sadly, Kansas City epitomizes the national epidemic of ignored safety tools needed by location firms and others for accurate line location and secure excavation.
As the former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and creator of the national 811 single-call system for assistance in locating utility lines, my sole ambition is to uphold safety for all infrastructure. After reviewing this case, I am convinced we need a national upgrade to the available “best practices” technology to make sure a tragedy like this one never happens again. For example, GPS mapping technology in combination with improved accuracy has proven to significantly reduce location errors and improve overall safety.
Our vast government and private investments for research and development should be put to use, rather than letting them remain speculation and hearsay. By requiring increased implementation of new technologies tied to detailed procedures, we can increase safety for everyone involved, from utility personnel and construction workers to the general public. The solution to ensuring safety is not ambiguous. It is an easy path forward. And it’s the responsible solution.
In the interim, the public must hold accountable all those who are responsible for managing these projects to maintain stringent levels of responsibility. Effective procedures and resources must be in place and all must adherence to them. Utilities and businesses are in the market to make money. But we all need to be reminded that some things are more important than making a profit.