In 1994, the Nebraska Legislature passed a law creating the One Call Notification System. This law requires everyone who does excavation to call the Diggers Hotline at least two business days before they begin their work. This statewide system was put in place to help locate underground infrastructure, such as natural gas pipelines or telecommunications cable, and to protect public safety by preventing damage to property, interruption of utility services, and serious injury. By using the hotline, diggers eliminate their liability for damage to pipelines and cables.
When the legislation was originally introduced, debate centered around defining the term “excavation.” It was determined that normal road maintenance, the digging of graves or landfills in planned locations, and the tilling of soil for seeding were outside of the call requirement for excavation along with other activities related to what was broadly labeled as “agricultural purposes.”
Recently, questions have been raised regarding soil sampling and whether it falls into the category of “agricultural purposes.” A 2011 opinion by Nebraska’s Attorney General stated the need for legislative clarification in the exemption for agricultural purposes. Utility companies, farmers, and soil samplers have taken opposing views on the subject.
Utilities are adamant that soil samplers should not be included in the exemption and be required to call the hotline. They argue that probes are becoming more invasive, making important infrastructure more susceptible to damage. Severing telecommunication cables will disrupt 911 service, interrupt Internet availability, and impact cell phone towers and FAA radar sites. For gas pipelines, even small nicks can compromise structural integrity and lead to leaks or even devastating and costly explosions.
Farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness professionals argue that soil sampling is indeed an “agricultural purpose” that has become much more pervasive and technologically sophisticated in recent years. Many Natural Resource Districts now require probes up to 3 feet deep to monitor for groundwater contamination, and farmers use frequent moisture probing during the growing season to conserve irrigation water. In fact, because of GPS systems and more precise tillage equipment and practices, soil sampling is done on a regular, yearly basis.
Unlike other types of excavation, soil sampling is done routinely, in the same location year after year, and requires detailed records. Requiring repetitive calls to the Diggers Hotline to clear the same field would be unnecessary from a safety perspective. Moreover, gathering soil samples, is impacted by the weather so there is a short window of time to complete collections. If soil samplers were required to call the Diggers Hotline for each probe, it could create a higher volume of calls over a condensed time frame, increasing demands on personnel and making calling the hotline for each probe time consuming and costly.
There is no disagreement with the purpose and benefits of the Diggers Hotline. No one takes issue with the safety aspects that this long-standing program provides. Right now it appears that the “devil is in the details” as we work to find common ground that recognizes the legitimate perspectives from both sides of this important issue.