The U.S. Department of Transportation says pipelines are the safest, most reliable, and cost-effective way to get energy from one place to another. But if you strike an underground gas line while digging, it can cause personal harm, environmental damages, and dramatic financial loss. And because huge amounts of people live or gather near pipelines, gas leaks are important to understand.

The leading cause of gas leaks is excavating accidents that nick or puncture a pipeline. Weighty loads like soil piles, collapsed buildings, and construction equipment can rupture pipelines buried beneath them.

Here’s how to know if a pipe is broken.

The biggest indicator of a leak is a rotten egg odor, which is added to natural gas to be detected in instances of pipeline damage. Transmission pipelines don’t have odorant, so be sure to also look out for the following:

  • Dead or discolored plants that seem out of place in a green area
  • Dirt or dust blowing from a hole in the ground
  • Bubbling in wet or flooded areas such as creeks or ponds
  • A blowing or hissing sound
  • Flames, if a leak has already ignited

It’s important to respond to natural gas leaks quickly because of their potential for fires and explosions. But that doesn’t mean to go looking for the source yourself! When natural gas builds up in one area, it displaces the oxygen. That means surrounding people get very sick or even asphyxiate. So leave immediately. Once you’re at a safe distance:

  • Call a utility company and 911.
  • Don’t do anything that could cause a spark and set off the gas. That means no altering electrical devices, whether by using telephones or garage door openers, flipping light switches, or starting vehicles in the area. Leave everything on or off.
  • Don’t use an open flame (no matches or lighters).
  • Don’t try to shut off any natural gas valves.
  • Don’t try to repair the line yourself.

Pipelines have the best safety record of all major transportation systems. They’re buried near our homes, schools, hospitals, and playgrounds. But for that reason, everyone needs to know how to spot a leak. Before you tunnel into anything, make sure you call a private utility locator like Baker Utility Partners. Any project – even something simple like planting a bush or mailbox – needs to have subsurface structures staked, flagged, and painted. No surprise is a good surprise.