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Phmsa Study: Wider Adoption Of Technology, Stronger Enforcement Critical To Improving Pipeline Safety

07 Dec 2017, Posted in Blog Posts, Blog Posts

Last June, Congress passed and the President signed the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016 (PIPES Act). Among the bill’s numerous other provisions was a hidden gem. Congress asked the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) to conduct a study on how new technologies can improve excavation safety by more accurately locating and mapping the presence of underground pipelines, and facilitating communication among all parties to an excavation process – locators, excavators, operators, and the quasi-governmental state one-call centers. Excavation damage is among the largest causes of pipeline incidents every year, and when things go wrong, the consequences can be catastrophic. (See the incident in Firestone, Colorado earlier this year).

The same month Congress called for the study, the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) released our state Damage Prevention Report Card. Understanding that excavation was among the largest threats to pipeline safety and that there were commercially available technologies that would significantly reduce the likelihood of incidents and improve safety outcomes, we reviewed the Damage Prevention laws and regulations in all 50 states to see which were incorporating these safety technologies, and which needed to improve. Specifically, the study assessed three key elements of each state’s program:

1. Does the state have a legitimate positive response system?
2. Is technology used to allow excavators to engage in property quality control procedures prior to breaking ground?
3. Does the state require a technology-based platform all parties can access to share information ensuring the excavation is completed safely?

Our findings were discouraging. Only 18 states had positive response requirements. No states updated their laws or regulations to take advantage of quality control systems. And, only 13 states implemented online information exchange systems allowing for seamless real-time information sharing among all parties. Needless to say, we eagerly anticipated the results of the congressionally mandated PHMSA Damage Prevention safety study to help make the case for increasing adoption of safety technologies in state Damage Prevention programs.

This August, the PHMSA study was completed. The results were helpful and telling. The following were among the studies most critical recommendations and some key excerpts supporting their adoption:

¬ Develop collaboration/communication tools that foster better communication between the excavator and pipeline operator throughout the excavation process.

Communicating complete and accurate information about the proposed excavation, the locate-and-mark process, and project status minimizes damage incidents. A critical element to a successful excavation project is full communication among involved parties; this is generally no a requirement in state one-call laws and is not available in all states, but should be considered for more widespread implementation. Technology affords several ways to facilitate stakeholder communication, such as enhanced positive response utilizing mobile devices.

¬ Improve and implement GPS/GIS technologies in accurately locating and documenting the location of underground facilities.

All affected stakeholders should continue to strive for improvement and implementation of GPS/GIS technologies in accurately locating and documenting the location of underground facilities. While challenging to implement, accurate mapping is one of the cornerstones of damage prevention.

PHMSA considers that the use of mobile devices should be an integral part of capturing and aligning GPS data. The CGA further recommends that any future technologies focused on GPS data points deliver a final product that is within on meter of accuracy, and PHMSA supports that minimum standard.

¬ Consider requiring operator damage data reporting.

PHMSA recommends that steps be taken to adopt and require pipeline operators to use the CGA DIRT or an equivalent data reporting tool in the future. All pipeline operators should submit damage and near-miss data to DIRT or an equivalent database, and the DIRT tool (or equivalent database) should allow for analysis of all pipeline damage data on a state level. Regulators should be able to verify operator submission to DIRT.

¬ Consider the development of national standards for certain state one-call requirements.

Consideration should be given to establishing national standards for state one-call laws with respect to notification requirements, ticket scope, emergency tickets, design/project tickets, or other requirements. Consistency in these requirements for each state could reduce the likelihood of damages by eliminating confusion between state requirements and establishing a baseline by which state performance could be measured. For most proposed changes, legislative changes would be required at the state or federal level.

¬ Strengthen state damage prevention enforcement programs.

The 2006 [Pipeline Safety] Act gave PHMSA new enforcement authority over excavators who damage pipelines in States with inadequate excavation damage prevention law enforcement programs. Prerequisite to excavator enforcement is PHMSA’s determination of the states’ enforcement program adequacy. In 2016, PHMSA conducted meetings with state pipeline safety and damage prevention stakeholders to discuss and evaluate each state’s program. These interactions served to raise the awareness of the participating stakeholders. PHMSA should continue these interactions through outreach and support to states seeking to strengthen enforcement of their one-call laws and raise awareness for excavators.

Congress did their job in requiring the study; PHMSA did theirs by putting out thoughtful recommendations supported by the facts; now states, stakeholders, and other interested parties need to consider how to best adopt these recommendations. Many of PHMSA’s recommendations align directly with Aii’s priorities, including wider adoption of safety technology – and specifically Enhanced Positive Response, stronger state enforcement programs, mandatory incident reporting, and perhaps federal pre-emption to ensure all states benefits from these safety improvements. We will continue to reach out, educate, and work with anyone willing to make the excavation process as safe as it can possibly be.