Lawmakers want to protect our gas pipelines and the people who might not know they're there.
By Daniel Shea
Imagine stretching pipeline between Honolulu and Boston. You’d have to go back and forth 500 times to equal the amount of pipeline running underground in the United States.
Pipelines deliver the natural gas and petroleum products that help fuel homes, cars, power plants—just about everything that helps drive the economy. Unseen, yet ubiquitous, they’re easily overlooked and at risk of being damaged during digging projects, posing risks to people and property.
It is a testament to the efforts made over the past two decades by states and the federal government that, despite natural gas consumption growing nearly 20 percent since 2005, the number of major pipeline accidents has consistently dropped, from 120,000 in 2005 to fewer than 86,000 in 2016. In fact, major damage to pipelines caused by excavation has decreased by about 30 percent during that time.
Still, there is work to do. Those 86,000 leaks caused 40 deaths and more than $322 million in property damages, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Call Before You Dig
Every state has what’s known as a one-call law. The laws vary but, generally, are intended to get people who want to dig (homeowners, construction companies) talking to the people who operate underground infrastructure (utilities, telecommunications companies, water districts). This is usually accomplished through one-call centers, which can be reached by dialing 811. Homeowners and contractors—known collectively as “excavators”—are required to call their local 811 center to request that pipeline or other operators mark all infrastructure at a project site.
If this sounds simple in theory, developing the right technical and communications protocols and conducting outreach on how to use 811 can be complex in practice. The effort has been shown to pay off, however. The Common Ground Alliance, a national organization that tracks accidents and advocates for the prevention of pipeline damage by excavators, found that when a person calls 811 before digging, the likelihood of damage to underground infrastructure is less than 1 percent.
At least 11 states—Alabama, Arkansas, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee—have revised their one-call laws since 2010, and a few others, like Colorado, Indiana and Kansas, did so earlier.
During the 2017 legislative session, North Dakota and Pennsylvania passed updates to their one-call laws, with North Dakota clarifying communications requirements and restricting excavators from using heavy machinery in certain areas over pipelines. Pennsylvania’s update mandates pipeline operator participation in the one-call center, transfers enforcement to the state public utility commission, requires reporting of all excavation damages and establishes an oversight committee.
“The checklist of advantages this bill yields is significant,” says Pennsylvania Senator Lisa Baker (R), who sponsored the legislation. Baker says the law consolidates enforcement, covers more pipelines in rural areas and reasonably apportions the costs of operating the system.
“In Pennsylvania, it is estimated there are more than 6,000 hits each year, approximately half involving natural gas lines,” she says, noting that the damages lead to service interruptions, environmental damages, injuries and fatalities. “These incidents jeopardize the public, place workers at risk and compromise infrastructure.”
In North Carolina, the General Assembly passed an update to the state’s one-call law in 2013. According to Louis Panzer, executive director of North Carolina 811 Inc., the most significant changes to the law were a requirement that pipeline operators become members of the state’s one-call center and the creation of an incident review board, which has ensured that violations are investigated and penalties are assessed. Before the new law’s passage there was no dedicated enforcement body.
“The fact that enforcement exists is a really important piece of that legislation,” Panzer says.
The law also requires operators to report all damages to the one-call center. In more than 25 states, reports to such centers are voluntary, leaving those states without accurate, comprehensive data—an area of particular focus since 2006, when Congress passed the Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety Act, known as the PIPES Act.
A Priority on PIPES
In the 1990s, excavation accounted for about 60 percent of all pipeline damage, and the National Transportation Safety Board listed it as one of its top 10 priorities for safety improvements.
Late in that decade, in the wake of several high-profile accidents caused by digging, Congress directed the agency that would become the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to investigate the best ways to enhance safety and prevent excavation-related damage.
The investigation, which became known as the Common Ground Study, included 162 people from a variety of groups. From the beginning, it emphasized communication, cooperation and consensus—the need for buy-in from all stakeholders. Ultimately, the investigators identified 130 best practices and created the Common Ground Alliance, an association that now includes some 1,700 members.
In part because of their effort, excavation was the cause of just 11 percent of all pipeline damage over the past decade.
The PIPES Act also tasked the pipeline safety administration with reviewing state one-call laws. Shortly after the law’s enactment, several legislatures began reviewing their own laws; among the first was Indiana, which significantly updated its law in 2009.
A Challenging Task
With so many industries maintaining buried infrastructure and the laws applying to everyone from construction companies to homeowners who just want to plant a tree, the seemingly simple task of protecting people and property from pipeline damage can get complicated.
“There were a number of competing interests that made consensus difficult,” says DeAnna Poon, assistant general counsel to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. The bill increased civil penalties, for example, and required a newly formed board to review all damage reports.
The pipeline safety administration began notifying states this year about whether they are adequately enforcing their one-call laws. As of January, enforcement was found to be inadequate in 26 states, though one is contesting that finding. Indiana is among the 24 states with adequate enforcement.
Poon says enforcement and civil penalties are only two aspects of the issue, however. She notes that Indiana’s 2009 law established education and compliance, rather than punishment, as priorities.
Digging Through the Data
Data collection has been a primary focus since the Common Ground Study. In 2004, Common Ground Alliance began publishing its DIRT Report, which is based on pipeline damage information submitted to its online Damage Information Reporting Tool. The report serves as a prime source for analyzing trends. Since then, the estimated numbers of excavation-related utility damages and near-miss events have dropped by nearly half. In addition, the rate of damages has stayed within the same range since 2010, even though construction spending increased by nearly 25 percent, according to Common Ground.
“[Common Ground] is built on shared responsibility among all members,” President and CEO Sarah Magruder Lyle says. “This has resulted in more members who voluntarily submit data to DIRT. As state damage prevention programs have evolved and improved, members have increasingly recognized the importance of complete and accurate data in evaluating program success and identifying areas for improvement.”
North Carolina 811 has invested significantly in its data system, called the “Super Mega Spreadsheet,” which offers around 80,000 data points annually, broken down by county, for the state’s one-call center to analyze. It’s precisely because the state can compare its own data with the DIRT Report that Panzer, the director of the state’s 811 center, knows what the program is missing and where to focus its efforts. For example, North Carolina received only about half of the reports sent to
Common Ground in the first year after the state’s law went into effect. But by the following year, the proportion rose to about 70 percent.
“It’s not a policy thing. It’s more a compliance issue,” Panzer says, noting that the new law requires notifications to North Carolina 811. “All you can do is strive to get more people educated to providing the data, and I think the legislation helps.”
Reporting on the Rise
Indiana has also been analyzing its data in order to provide targeted education and training. Since 2009, when the state’s new law went into effect, the number of excavators calling the 811 center before digging has increased by nearly 60 percent. The state uses the revenue from civil penalties to fund public awareness campaigns on Indiana radio and television stations. Some of the ads reach 95 percent of the state’s residents every month.
Damages have dropped by 9 percent in the last nine years.
“It seems to be working,” Poon says. “We are seeing improvement.”
“I wish I could say there was one tool that works best,” Panzer says. “But we really don’t see that.”
It will take a concerted, multipronged effort—highlighting public education, state enforcement, data collection and training—to protect communities from one of the most preventable sources of damage to pipelines.
Daniel Shea is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Energy Program.