Senate Digs for Pipeline Damage Data

By Published On: June 7, 2013

Excavations are the biggest cause of pipeline accidents, largely because of failures to notify utilities prior to digging, the Senate Subcommittee on Gas & Electric Infrastructure Safety learned June 4. The problem of non-compliant excavations—largely attributed to contractors failing to call the state’s notification centers that contact utilities—is exacerbated by the shortage of data on damage to gas and electric infrastructure from excavations and lack of enforcement of state law. “Data collection is the key to safety in California. We could find where there are gaps and make changes to excavation laws in the state” with increased data, said Ryan White, USA North Regional Notification Center liaison. The board fields “811” calls that provide notice of planned excavations. The board then contacts the utilities, which mark where its underground equipment is prior to diggings. Last year, 1,600 excavations damaged Pacific Gas & Electric underground infrastructure, said John Higgins, PG&E gas distribution, maintenance & construction senior director. In more than 60 percent of those cases the contractors did not call in advance, according to Higgins. He said the trend has continued this year. Homeowners digging their yards also damage utility infrastructure as do utilities mismarking their underground pipes. Higgins said 7 percent of the digging damage in PG&E territory was caused by incorrect marking, much of it arising from absent or incorrect utility records. Legislation unanimously passed by the Assembly requires regional excavation notification centers to post on their web sites violations of the notification requirement and the damage incurred. The bill, AB 811 by Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), passed 76-0 and was sent to the Senate last month. PG&E’s Higgins and others not only called for improved data collection but also for meaningful enforcement, including seeking prosecution by the District Attorney for damage arising from repeat no call violations by excavators. “We don’t have an effective punishment,” said Jack Hagan, the California Public Utilities Commission safety & enforcement division director. He said commission citations and minor fines are often little more than the “cost of doing business” for some firms. When notified of excavation damage to utility pipes and poles, the CPUC investigates but has never reported a case to the district attorney for prosecution. If digging violations were reported to the district attorney, “they’ll not supersede murder, rape and robbery but they are important,” said Cory Salzillo, California District Attorneys Association lobbyist.

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