States Lead the Way on Pipeline Safety

E-newsletter Issue #87 | March 1, 2012

Every day, a network of more than 2 million miles of pipelines quietly supplies the United States with critical energy products to heat and cool our homes, drive our cars to work or fly across the country for a family vacation.

Although pipeline accidents are rare, their consequences can be very harmful and sometimes fatal. States are tasked with supplying the overwhelming number of inspectors to keep this huge and expansive network operating safely to protect the public and the environment. In fact, nearly 75 percent of the entire regulatory work force serving on the front lines of public safety is state personnel, according to the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives.

Congress directed states to enhance their pipeline safety programs to ensure measured and continued effectiveness. Several states have strengthened their damage prevention efforts while maintaining stakeholder support from the both the business and environmental communities.

Last summer, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the Underground Utilities Damage Prevention Act into law, which provides a comprehensive update of existing pipeline safety and excavation statutes. Its successful final passage was the result of a nearly three-year stakeholder effort begun by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

In 2009, the commission gathered regulated utilities, municipalities, counties, contractors and excavators to form the Dig Law Group to address safety concerns raised by federal regulators and to remove poor excavation practices under the state’s existing statutes.

“People were patient and we persevered,” Dave Lykken, the commission’s pipeline safety director, observed during deliberations. “While not perfect, the bill solves a lot of problems that we previously had. I have to give credit to all the stakeholders involved because they realized it was everyone’s responsibility to get something done.” 

Doing the hard work of consensus building on the front end allowed the Dig Law Group to build the foundation for what would ultimately become the new state law that was unanimously approved by both houses of the Washington State Legislature.

“This new law will really put some teeth into enforcing safe digging practices and help us avoid future tragedies,” the commission’s chairman, Jeff Gotlz, noted, according to a Reuters article.

Under the old regulations, because no single enforcement body existed, each locality had to enforce the state’s excavation statutes.

Washington’s new pipeline safety statute requires all underground facility operators to be a part of a one-number locator service that will mark where important infrastructure is located before an excavation project takes place. Any damages from excavation must be reported to a central database within the Utilities and Transportation Commission and fines for repeat violations to damage prevention laws were added as a deterrent to poor excavation practices. 

In addition to beefing up enforcement procedures at the commission, the new law also created a safety committeecomprised of stakeholdersto help advise the state on best practices and training to prevent damage to underground facilities, enhance worker and public safety, and review complaints of violations of the underground utilities law.

The newly minted committee also serves a unique role where it can supplement the enforcement powers of the state by referring violations for investigation that may go unreported to the Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Efforts in Washington and other states have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated by federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration. 

“We are happy to see the increased state-level attention to damage prevention,” Jeffrey Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety, noted. “Whether it’s enacting legislation to strengthen and enforce the one call laws (Maryland and Washington), hosting damage prevention stakeholder summits (Mississippi, Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Iowa), promoting 811 as the national call-before-you-dig number or implementing new technology to improve the digging process, we’re seeing improvements in damage prevention across the country.”

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