As technology improves, law and regulation must improve for the sake of public safety.

Excavation damage has been a leading – and in many years the leading – cause of pipeline incidents for decades. More than ten years ago, Congress addressed what was then the leading contributor to these incidents at the time – an excavator’s failure to notify the pipeline’s operator of the planned excavation. The lack of a uniform method of communication between pipeline operators and excavators made it nearly impossible for pipeline operators to provide excavators the location of underground pipeline facilities prior to the excavator putting a drill in the ground.

Creating the “811” program changed that – anyone anywhere can now dial 811 on their phone and be immediately connected to their state or local clearinghouse, or “one-call center” to notify them about upcoming excavation activity. As use of the 811 system increased, the share of incidents attributed to “failure to notify” dropped from more than 50 percent to less than 25 percent.

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By all accounts, 811 is a resounding success. But, like all things, if we spend too much time and focus patting ourselves on the back for past accomplishments, we are not spending enough time looking for future solutions. And just like that, ten years passed and no serious legislative or regulatory efforts were made to further improve excavation safety.

A host of new technologies have come to market – many of which we use in our everyday lives (e.g. GPS location technology, smart phones, tablets, etc.) – that can significantly improve efficiency and excavation safety outcomes.

One particular system, Enhanced Positive Response (EPR), which incorporates these technologies, as described in greater detail below, has shown enormous promise. More than a handful of underground facility (i.e., pipelines, telecommunications networks) operators in ten-plus states now use EPR. However, despite successful pilot projects, increased operational efficiencies, and unanimous agreement about its safety benefits, not a single state has formally adopted EPR as a legally required component of its damage prevention laws or regulations. This is especially stunning considering the potential cost savings the states themselves would experience through a more streamlined one-call center process.

Fast forward to 2016, when Congress asked the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to review excavation safety practices, and specifically how new technologies could be incorporated to improve safety outcomes in the pipeline safety reauthorization bill. PHMSA responded, sending a completed study back to Congress the following year. It was no surprise that EPR was referenced nearly 10 times throughout the study as an effective tool for preventing pipeline damage during the excavation process. In fact, EPR occupied the top spot out of the nine recommendations the agency returned to Congress.

In one excerpt, PHMSA explains how it works and the safety improvements experienced in the one of the pilot programs:

“Enhanced Positive Response: Enhanced positive response allows for completed ticket information, including photos and manifests of the dig site, to be provided to the excavator in advance of the digging project. This is often provided through the one-call centers. According to information submitted to the CGA by Utiliquest, users of enhanced positive response report up to a 67 percent decrease in damage rates.”

Later in the study, PHMSA points out that use of advanced technologies is critical to addressing gaps in current damage prevention programs, and again points to EPR as a tool to make sure all parties to a project are on the same page:

“Enhanced positive response coordinated through one-call centers needs wider implementation; it can vastly improve communication among all involved in the digging process and has been shown to reduce damage rates.”

Among its nine recommendations to Congress, PHMSA identified EPR as its number one solution for its ability to serve as a communication/collaboration tool to foster better communication between parties. The agency’s sixth recommendation was to consider national standards for certain one-call practices and in ninth, PHMSA recommended implementation of certain Common Ground Alliance best practices.

Again, there is no surprise that EPR was identified by CGA as a best practice back in 2017. This required unanimous approval from 16 diverse stakeholder groups within CGA’s membership. CGA has also hailed Enhanced Positive Response in every one of its annual of its Technology Reports, even projecting that by 2030 EPR would be an integral component of the “idealized” dig.

It’s clear that wider adoption of EPR is a critical step in improving excavation safety. States should already have updated their programs to include EPR as a required component of damage prevention compliance, but none have. Congress missed an opportunity to fix that in the latest PHMSA reauthorization, and again when it passed a trillion-dollar infrastructure law in 2021. Not only were these opportunities missed, but the latter may have actually created a bigger problem – exacerbating damage trends by infusing the construction sector with billions of dollars and enflaming already rising excavation damage trends. Knowing the strong correlation between construction spending and pipeline damage, a nationwide standard to mitigate damage during excavation projects is essential for public safety, environmental security, and economic wellbeing.

To be sure, there are many policy areas better managed at the state and local level, but when it comes to pipeline safety, the costs of failure are too high, and the public interest surrounding pipelines too strong to ignore the federal government’s obligation to set minimum safety thresholds. Further, more uniform tech-based standards across states would allow for consolidation of one-call centers working off of one common network, leading to cost savings at the state and federal level. New technologies bring new opportunities, and EPR has proven to be a simple and effective path to eliminating unnecessary pipeline incidents, increasing operational efficiency, and reducing costs.


Written by Shane Skelton, Policy Advisor and Benjamin R. Dierker, Director of Public Policy


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.


[*This article has been updated to account for Congressional developments. Revised April 2022.]