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Bill proposed to regulate digging near pipelines


Carroll County Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown has asked county staff members to draft statewide legislation that would -- implement safeguards to prevent an explosion such as the one that blew up a Westminster house in January.

Mr. Brown said that anyone digging trenches near utility lines should be state-licensed and that anyone working in a state or county right-of-way should be required to expose utility lines before drilling.

The commissioner asked staff members to draft the safety legislation for introduction in the 1996 General Assembly.

"Next time, are we in good shape?" Mr. Brown asked yesterday at a meeting with county staff to review changes in procedures since the explosion. "Have we learned something?"

"I hope you learned something, because this wasn't a dry run," Commissioner Richard T. Yates said.

"Each one [emergency] is a learning experience," said General Services Director J. Michael Evans. "I wish I could tell you, if The Greens [a Westminster housing development] blew up, we're ready for it. We're not. Nobody is."

Natural gas leaking from a ruptured pipeline caused an explosion at 1:18 p.m. Jan. 19 that destroyed an unoccupied home in the Autumn Ridge neighborhood, damaged 65 other homes and caused an estimated $1 million in damage. No one was injured.

Workers from Apollo Trenching Co., a Howard County company that was working for Prestige Cable Television of Maryland, ruptured the gas line while digging to lay cable lines.

A report from the state Public Service Commission in February blamed Apollo Trenching for rupturing the gas line, but not for causing the explosion. The commission called Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s response to the rupture "adequate."

Mike Maring, a deputy county code official, said all but three families in Autumn Ridge have moved back to their homes. The remaining three are expected to return soon.

BGE officials say the company handles more than 600 ruptures in its 4,500-mile network of gas pipelines each year.

Mr. Brown said utility line ruptures would be less frequent if work crews were better trained. Workers who encounter utility lines should be required to be certified through Miss Utility, a statewide service that locates underground utilities, he said.

He also said there would be fewer ruptures if workers were required to expose utility lines when digging in county and state rights-of-way.

BGE spokesman Art Slusark said yesterday that company representatives met with fire chiefs throughout the state to discuss improving communications during gas line breaks. BGE now calls 911 every time a gas line is struck so that the appropriate fire company is notified and ready to act if needed.

Company officials met with Carroll fire chiefs May 22.

Mr. Slusark said BGE also is trying to arrange employees' schedules so that one gas safety technician always is available in Carroll County. A technician was in the county when the January gas line break occurred, he said.

Howard "Buddy" Redman, chief of the county's Bureau of Emergency Operations Services, said Carroll has added more phones lines at the Emergency Operations Center in Westminster for use during disasters.

Mr. Maring said workers in the Permits and Inspections Bureau who determine whether structures are unsafe need vests to make them easy to identify at the scene of a disaster.

They also need hard hats, he said.

"We probably shouldn't have been in some of those houses without them," Mr. Maring said.

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