Pipeline Safety Agency Reauthorized in Year-End Omnibus22 Dec 2020
With the year-end omnibus budget and coronavirus stimulus package, the federal government’s top pipeline safety agency was reauthorized. The down-to-the-wire omnibus deal included the reauthorization, which was 447 days overdue, as the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) authorization expired in September of 2019.
Due to federal rules and budgetary procedures, PHMSA was still up and running for the past unauthorized year, living off a continuation of its previous authorization and appropriations. Now the agency will enjoy a renewed budget and guidance.
Missing from this reauthorization, and possibly on the horizon for the next session of Congress, is essential guidance on excavation damage prevention. A critical issue, damage prevention is how pipeline operators and other underground infrastructure owners avoid harm to themselves, the environment, the community, and the economy.
In 2019, there were an estimated 532,000 excavation damage incidents, which cost the U.S. economy over $30 billion. Pipeline damage alone caused 11 casualties that year, three of which were tragic and preventable deaths.
As the chief pipeline regulator, PHMSA is uniquely positioned to set standards for the nation on damage prevention. One such rule would be requiring that states implement certain innovative technologies in their damage prevention process.
That process involves excavators calling or using the state’s One-Call website to provide notice of their intent to dig and request a locate ticket. This request is registered in the One-Call center’s system, which sends transmission notices out to all the utility operators with underground infrastructure at the dig site. The operators then send professional locators to mark the ground with flags, stakes, and spray paint to denote the type, size, and tolerance zone of the subterranean facilities. Once the statutory timeframe has matured (usually two to three days), and all underground facilities have been marked, the excavator can begin his dig without fear of striking a pipeline or causing a power outage to the surrounding area.
PHMSA already has certain standards in place for states to be certified by the agency for eligibility for grants and other benefits. This requires state legislatures or regulators to establish standards or enforce minimal rules that all damage prevention stakeholders must follow. Few states require the use of technology in the process, and far fewer have robust shareability and quality control measures to ensure clear communication and safety between all parties.
With well over half a million damage incidents last year and a five-year trend of increasing damages, the need for new standards and deliberate action is clear. With PHMSA reauthorized, it may consider taking up a rule-making procedure to establish new minimal standards like the use of innovative technology. If PHMSA does not take up this task, Congress may need to flex its oversight powers or promulgate standalone legislation to ensure all parties in the damage prevention process across the country are able to access and share high quality enhanced information about a dig site, including photos, maps, and GPS data. This would give the facility owners, locators, and excavators greater confidence that they are protecting themselves, protecting the infrastructure, and safeguarding the environment from the adverse effects of spills, leaks, and even possible explosions that come from striking natural gas and other facilities.