Dig Safe Month: Saskatchewan works with farmers to protect the public and pipelines

April is Dig Safe Month – bringing attention to the important issue of safe digging practices around pipelines and other underground infrastructure. This month’s blogs will highlight some of the ways CEPA members work with the public and different industries to keep their pipelines safe.

Saskatchewan is known as Canada’s breadbasket, and for good reason. The province is home to more than 34,000 farms and 36.7 million acres of crops (more than Alberta and Manitoba combined). It is Canada’s leading producer of wheat and the world’s largest exporter of peas, lentils, mustard seed and other products.

Saskatchewan also has thousands of kilometres of natural gas transmission lines – most of which are buried below farmland. Farmers and ranchers often cross paths with pipelines, which can lead to dangerous situations if they don’t follow safe digging guidelines and practices.

That’s why pipeline operators have extensive public awareness programs – to ensure everyone understands the rules and how to dig safely on their property.  The rules can be complicated because different types of pipelines have different regulations that must be followed.

TransGas, a subsidiary of provincial Crown corporation SaskEnergy, operates more than 15,000 kilometres of high-pressure natural gas transmission lines, as well as storage facilities and compressor stations, across Saskatchewan. TransGas has an extensive damage prevention and public awareness program that includes in-person visits and mail-outs to landowners across the province. A lot of that outreach is aimed at farmers, who often break ground for several reasons, including to build fences and roads, dig dugouts and drainage ditches and bury rock piles.

“Most farmers have backhoes and dozers so it’s very easy to go out and start digging,” said Graham Biletski, Senior Damage Prevention Coordinator with SaskEnergy. “While they may feel that they know their land really well, including what’s on it or below it, that’s not always the case. We want to make sure that they not only know where buried utility lines are, but the proper practices to follow in order to excavate near them safely.”

Four years ago, after an increase in incidents caused by third-party damage to buried infrastructure, the Saskatchewan government passed amendments to provincial regulations around damage prevention. Several changes were made to ensure enhanced public safety, encourage safe digging, and align with industry best practices.

Between regulatory changes and damage prevention programs such as TransGas’, Biletski says these are significant efforts to ensure the thousands of farmers and rural landowners in the province stay safe and understand the consequences of unsafe digging.

“If you do something wrong and cause a disruption to underground gas lines, it can cause gas leaks and ruptures. These can disrupt natural gas service to somebody’s home, or even an entire community, cause costly damage to equipment, or result in serious injuries,” Biletski said. “This is why is it so important to request underground line locates through Click Before You Dig or Sask 1st Call before any work begins.”

Damaging a gas line can also be expensive. If a TransGas line is ruptured during an unauthorized activity, the violator may be responsible for paying damages to the pipeline and third-party property – up to 150 per cent of total costs. Between lost gas, repairs and the cost of getting the system back up and running, that bill could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Biletski says the efforts are paying off. Unauthorized transmission-related activities have gone down from 29 in 2019 to nine in 2020. The goal is to reach zero.

“It should be like seatbelts, safety glasses or not drinking and driving – we need a cultural shift,” said Biletski. “It’s a simple task to request a line locate.”

Whether it’s a farmer digging a trench or someone in the city planting a tree in their back yard, it’s important to Click Before You Dig.

Special thanks to Graham Biletski, Senior Damage Prevention Coordinator with SaskEnergy/TransGas for his help with this article.