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Risky Business: Utility "Clears"

Sewer camera photo of split spoon sampler through sewer concrete pipe.

Disturbing the ground within an easement is risky business if you don’t know what’s below. Damages on easements happen frequently in Ontario. Unfortunately, failing to identify an Easement can result in serious damages or injury if missed. Everyone on a ground disturbance project must know how to identify potential easements and manage them within the Ontario utility locate system.

What is an Easement?

A legally arranged parcel of land that allows anyone or an entity the right to use and/or enter a property without owning it.

What is a Utility Easement?

Utility Easements allow above and below-ground utility infrastructure to pass through a subject property that may or may not service it. These easements usually have specific terms and conditions of what can be built on these parcels.

How to Identify Easements:
  1. Ask the property owner for a survey of their property

  2. Hire a survey company to provide you with a survey

  3. Visit Land Registry Office or online parcel register to search the property

  4. If buried utility infrastructure on the property does not service the property, it is likely within an easement. (ie. large diameter services such as sewers, water mains, pipelines, etc.)

What Happened in that Picture?

There are many times that unsuspecting excavators dig or drill through a buried facility on private property within an easement because the utility owner provided a “Clear”. This is exactly what happened in this photo.

In 2021, a driller pushed this split spoon sampler through a 2-meter diameter concrete sewer within a small commercial property. An Ontario One Call (OOC) ticket was submitted correctly for the work area that was solely on private property. The dig information was checked with “NO” for public property and “YES” for private property.

Based on the Private Property selection, the municipality provided a “Clear” for the municipal storm sewer. In addition, the private locator on the work site marked the inverts incorrectly for the storm sewer and did not identify on their locate that the sewer inspected was 2m in diameter. It should be noted that Private Locate Technicians, should not be marking infrastructure for dig purposes, that are owned by a municipality or utility company unless they have a contract with the utility owner. Without records, how would the Private Locate Technician know it was municipally owned? Easy answer, you would not have a 2m sewer pipe that is privately owned on a property with 1 building and a parking lot. This size of pipe is overkill for storm water that this pipe is designed to carry. Therefore, the obvious conclusion is that this 2m diameter sewer pipe is within an easement, however, it is not the private locator’s responsibility to provide a locate for a municipally owned sewer.

During the damage investigation, we asked the project owner to submit a new OOC ticket and check “YES” for Public Property. Sure enough, the municipality's response to the OOC locate request provided the map below of a sanitary and storm sewer line running through the middle of the property where the storm line was struck.

Ontario One Call utility drawing showing sewer easement through property.

But how could this happen you ask? Unfortunately, utility owners are allowed to provide “CLEARS” based on a condition selected by the excavator in the Ontario One Call locate system. The condition, in this case, was based on indicating that the excavator was solely working on private property and the municipality “CLEARS” even if its water or sewer lines pass through an easement on private property. Municipal water and sewer lines are passing through private properties all over Ontario within easements, and this “CLEAR” practice, based on property type, puts excavators in harm’s way.

The municipality assessed the damage to the sewer pipe at $60,000, and we will let you be the judge as to how this played out.

A few months later, this damage investigator came across the same issue in another nearby municipality where a large sewer type culvert for a creek was struck at 10m under a commercial property. It is October 2022, and this issue with Ontario One Call locate requests has not been rectified for this utility owner. If time has passed and you find this article interesting and want to know if or when this was rectified, please reach out to our office at

Key Takeaways:
  • ALWAYS consult a survey for each ground disturbance project on private property.

  • ALWAYS request a survey from your client in the beginning stages of a project. If one is not available, explain the risks, and obtain a survey from external sources.

  • ALWAYS question large-diameter sewer lines and/or those with a lot of flow within private property limits.

  • Municipalities must find a safer and more accurate way of “Clearing” their infrastructure.

  • Don't drill or dig on easements if you can help it!


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