Maryland Natural Gas officials, concerned about the high number of utility lines hit by construction crews in Montgomery County, and the county's lack of penalties for those incidents, are campaigning for stricter excavating rules and enforcement.

The company officials are organizing other utilities and construction firms to support their push for a county ordinance similar to laws in neighboring jurisdictions that require builders to have utility lines marked before breaking ground and to avoid using heavy machinery within a few feet of the marked lines, according to Lynn Battle, Maryland Natural Gas spokeswoman.

"Montgomery County is one of the few counties in the area lacking local laws on this," she said. "In light of all the development, it's key that the issue be addressed on a local level."

Battle stressed that most construction crews are careful but that a few careless ones can create serious ruptures that lead to service disruptions or explosions. Company officials said that although the utility will mark the lines free of charge to the builder, the pressure to meet deadlines often prevents builders from contacting the utilities or leads them to begin excavation before marking.

Three weeks ago, Venture Group of Maryland failed to have the gas lines marked and struck a line while building an addition to a house in Potomac. A spark ignited the natural gas, causing an explosion and fire that destroyed the house and seriously injured two workers.

Construction companies and utilities are debating the provisions of the legislation, and details of the proposed penalties have not yet been worked out. There may be a provision for making frequent violators ineligible for future permits, according to Joel Kramer, a lawyer for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, one of the utilities involved in the effort.

Clyde H. Sorrell, a deputy county attorney who has been working with the utilities, said the proposal is an effort to maximize the public safety without "tying the hands" of the development community.

Prince George's and Fairfax counties have similar ordinances, and Maryland gas officials said those laws were responsible for a lower rate of gas lines hit during construction.

In Prince George's, rupturing a line carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and a six-month jail term. In Fairfax, failing to call the utilities and subsequently hitting a line is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to Battle.

As an illustration of problems the utility faces in Montgomery County, Battle said that for every 100 times its lines are marked for construction crews, there were 1.3 hits on marked and unmarked lines. In Fairfax and Prince George's counties, the rate was less than one hit for every 100 markings.

In Montgomery, there were 329 hits on gas lines last year, Battle said. Although the gas company eventually bills the contractor for "We don't have any objection to the laws, but they have to be evenhanded and fair."

-- William Pridmore

the cost of the repair, she said, county residents pay for the contractor's negligence because the fire department has to go to the scene of every rupture.

The Montgomery legislation, which is being drafted by a coalition of utilities and construction firms in cooperation with the county attorney's office, is expected to be reviewed by County Executive Sidney Kramer next month. If he approves it, the proposal would then go to the County Council for consideration.

It would supplement Maryland state law requiring construction companies to call a service maintained by a coalition of utilities called Miss Utility that comes to the construction sites and marks the location of natural gas, electric and telephone lines.

The state law has penalty provisions for construction crews that fail to get the utilities marked and hit a line, but Battle said it is inadequate because the attorney general's office does not have the resources or the interest in enforcing the provision.

The Miss Utility service is expected to be called to 300,000 sites this year in Montgomery County, said James Holzer, general manager of Miss Utility.

Holzer and William Pridmore of Flippo Construction Co., which is involved in the negotiations with the utilities on the proposed legislation, argued that the line ruptures are not always the contractors' fault. Some utilities, such as some telephone companies, some gasoline pipelines and some cable television franchises, do not belong to Miss Utility and their lines are not easily marked, Holzer said. Holzer and Pridmore urged that utilities be forced by law to join Miss Utility.

Pridmore said, "We don't have any objection to the laws, but they have to be evenhanded and fair."