DIGGING IN MINEFIELDS - PART I

July 28, 2012: Beneath the ground you and I tread upon lies an unseen world of stuff, some benign and some deadly. We give little thought to this subterranean world as we skip and play on the surface, but for those that must delve into its depths with a shovel it holds terror and apprehension, or it ought to. (Cue ominous music here). Electric lines, gas lines, sewer lines – things that can kill you if you hit them or at least make you wish you were dead temporarily. Let me share with you my world, the world of the irrigation contractor, the world of digging in minefields. (Cue final crescendo here).

When a burglar is breaking into your house or you’re having an attack of angina, who do you phone – 911. When you are about to dig, you call – 811. One digit away from an emergency. I always thought that number was apropos and ironic. It’s the number to the Utility Notification Center(UOC) and every state or region has one. . Call it and they dispatch an underground locator within 2 -5 business days that will mark the public utilities (or at least the more dangerous ones) that run to your house for free. It’s a preventative number. Hopefully by calling 811 first, you prevent someone else from calling 911 later when you’re in convulsions on the ground because your shovel bit into an electric line. I’ve often wondered how many people in emergency situations dial 811 by mistake. It’s probably quite a few because the first automated answer you get when you call says if you’re intending to dial 911 you’ve got the wrong number.

There is a federal “Call, Before you Dig Law” as its colloquially known. As a contractor that digs, I am required to call on everything I do that involves digging. Even homeowners are required to call if they are excavating more than 12” deep. That’s something as simple as installing a mailbox post or planting a tree. If you don’t call and hit a utility line, you can face a substantial fine. If you do call and they mark the utility’s location and you hit it, you can be fined. The point is that you need to know the location of what’s underground and not hit it, and there is lots of stuff underground these days. The world beneath our feet is rapidly becoming a world of rampant subterranean urban sprawl. . . . Don’t get me started on that!

Throughout the years, I have had my share of utility mishaps. There was the time years ago, when I was planting a tree with a group of high school students in front of the county central educational district office for an Arbor Day ceremony. The district superintendent and my own principal would be there to get the photo op of watering the tree after planting. On digging out the hole, we severed the mainframe computer feed cable that connected all the schools in the county to the central office. Without data, school bureaucrats were paralyzed for several days. Needless to say, Arbor Day ceremonies were drastically dampened by that event.

Or there was the time that I was installing an irrigation system and cut a cable TV line. . . to the neighbor’s house. I hadn’t noticed it, at the time, but when these two adorable little twin girls ran out from the adjoining house in their Saturday mass dresses sobbing great crocodile tears, followed by their mother saying that their cartoon show had suddenly cut out and what was the problem . . . well I knew something was amiss. Their grief stricken accusatory faces made me feel such shame and remorse. It was as if I had strangled their pet rabbit. I am still haunted today by that image. I often wonder what happened to those little girls. Did they grow up to be happy well-adjusted young women or did they grow up scarred and fearful that at any moment their view of life could be suddenly shattered by some stranger in muddy work clothes? It’s a tough thing to live with.

I can’t speak for other landscape professionals, but I have developed a fear of digging over the years, which can be a very disturbing fear if that’s your business – digging. I thought maybe there’s actually a clinical disorder about the fear of digging. I went online and the closest thing I could find was a fear of dirt – rupophobia, but this had more to do with obsessive cleaning than digging. If there are any clinical psychologists out there who would like to pioneer the research of a new disorder, they could be the first champions to find a treatment for “subterraphobia” – fear of what lies underground (I actually just made that up but it oughta be in the lexicon). I could see exposure therapy and hypnotherapy and forums such as SA (Subterraphobics Anonymous) being developed to combat a disorder that for so long has been hidden and in shame for irrigation professionals. It’s time to bring subterraphobia out of the trenches and into the light of day.

Ah, you may say, surely having those utilities marked, as required by law, should be sufficient to treat this fear. But, not all underground utilities are marked and not all marked utilities are exactly where they are marked. What is marked, what is not marked, how accurate the location marked is, and still more personal utility trauma stories (right now this is the only therapy I have available) will be covered in the next installment, Digging in Minefields, Part 2

F & P