A work site marked with utility flags helps keep underground gas, electric, water and other utility lines safe from dig-ins.

CROWN POINT — As the economy has rebounded over the last few years, NIPSCO is seeing a major uptick in damage to underground gas lines. 

The majority has been caused by homeowners building a fence or deck, or planting a bush, but also by contractors and even NIPSCO employees themselves. 

A majority of the damage this year has been caused in the Crown Point area, which is why NIPSCO officials appeared before the city's board of works recently to discuss the issue and ways to better educate residents to call 811.

That number — 811 — is the state's official one-call notification service anyone must call before digging. A professional utility line locator will arrive and mark all underground utilities for free.

Indiana 811 is a nonprofit corporation made up of operators of underground facilities in the state of Indiana. The state's “Call Before You Dig” law requires everyone who digs to contact the group at least two full working days before starting their project and to have underground utility lines marked.

Earlier, Mayor David Uran had said the high number for Crown Point incidents was incorrect, but NIPSCO Public Affairs Manager Rick Kalinski said there have been 33 damage incidents in Crown Point through November of this year.

Some are records-related in which NIPSCO doesn't know about "stuff we put in 50 years ago," Uran said.

"We're trying to get better with our records," Kalinski said. 

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Fencing is still one of the main issues contributing to damage, and it's usually done by a homeowner or contractor, he said. 

"We're trying to get people to call 811," Kalinski said.

Uran noted that 19 of the 33 incident locations cited by NIPSCO occurred outside the city. He said those areas may have a Crown Point city ZIP code, but the damages actually occurred in unincorporated areas or places in Schererville or Winfield that have the city ZIP code.

"We don't have jurisdiction," Uran said. 

Uran said the city will do its part to reduce digging damages. The city will work to make sure calling 811 is part of the process whenever excavation or a building permit is issued, he said.

Kalinski said NIPSCO will work with the city on a good plan that can be used in other communities as well. 

"It's no secret if we have a dig-in in the community or anywhere, it can create a major issue or life safety issue," he said.

"It can also take away from some of the work we are doing in a community such as Crown Point. If we have folks working on an install or working on a good solid economic development project, a lot of times if there is a dig-in they get pulled off of that job to respond to an emergency situation."

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Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.