Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Symposium on Progress on Preventing Damage to
Underground Facilities
Washington, D.C.
June 30, 1999


Thank you. I want to welcome all of you to this symposium on damage prevention programs for the pipeline industry. While there has been progress in recent years in educating the public on the dangers of working around pipelines and the consequences of damage to pipelines, we continue to see pipeline ruptures caused by such damage. We need to do more.

I want to thank Congressman Bob Franks from New Jersey for joining us today. The Safety Board has worked very closely with Congressman Franks over the years and appreciates his commitment to the goals of this symposium.

I also want to thank my co-host for this meeting, Administrator Kelley Coyner of the Research and Special Programs Administration. As you all are aware, the NTSB has been critical of the Office of Pipeline Safety in the past for its inaction on many of our safety recommendations. Since Administrator Coyner assumed her position late last year, we have seen a new effort at cooperation from OPS and look forward to a new age of responsiveness from that agency.

Thomas Jefferson said, "The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government." And this applies not just to government, but to all of us. That is why I wanted to be here today to express my appreciation to all of you who have worked on this extremely important safety issue.

Those of you who participated in the Study of One-Call Systems and Damage Prevention Best Practices are to be commended for your demonstrated commitment to addressing this safety problem. Although you came from varied backgrounds, government and industry, and had differing views, you agreed to put public safety first, and reached what the study promised in its title: Common Ground.

I know that it wasn't easy. More than 160 people dedicated themselves to identifying best practices across the nation for preventing damage to underground facilities. You worked together so that all of us can be safer. And you should be proud of the report you are presenting to Secretary Slater today.

I also want to recognize and congratulate another team that has been working hard on damage prevention issues since October 1996 - the Damage Prevention Quality Action Team. This team - a joint government and industry initiative - has been working to promote safe digging practices. This work has demonstrated that public education is important, that it can work, and that accidents can be reduced if we all "Dig Smart."

As you all know, damage to pipelines during excavation activities is a leading cause of pipeline accidents. Excavation activities without prior notification to companies operating underground facilities, without timely and accurate markings of facilities, and without due care during digging activities, can, and do result in serious disruptions to vital public services, in loss of life, and in harm to our environment. In fact, because of the significance of this problem, the National Transportation Safety Board in 1997, added damage prevention to underground facilities to its list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements.

Some of the most serious accidents investigated by the Safety Board have been directly linked to a breakdown in damage prevention programs: inadequate or no notification to companies operating underground facilities prior to excavation work, inaccurate marking of underground facilities, and unsafe digging practices when underground facilities are known to be in the area of excavation work. For example, in Indianapolis, Indiana, six homes were destroyed and one person died after directional drilling operations damaged a natural gas pipeline. And in the deadliest pipeline accident ever investigated by the Safety Board, 33 people died in San Juan, Puerto Rico after a propane gas explosion, which was fueled by an excavation-related gas leak.

We also found that the consequences of accidental damage to an underground facility can be dramatically greater when the damage is not promptly reported to the facility owner. In Gramercy, Louisiana, almost half a million gallons of gasoline poured into a nearby marsh and river after a pipeline was damaged during excavation activities. The damage was not reported to the pipeline company and therefore it was not repaired before the rupture occurred.

We are currently investigating several other accidents linked to underground damage that occurred while excavation activities were on-going. One such accident occurred in December 1998, in St. Cloud, Minnesota. A plastic pipe operating under 60 pounds of pressure was struck while a utility pole anchor support was being installed into the ground. Just a month later, in January 1999, an explosion in Bridgeport, Alabama, resulted in three fatalities, five serious injuries, and the destruction of three buildings.

As recently as last week, in Howell, Michigan, a gas main was damaged while a contractor was installing a communications cable using directional drilling. The gas main had been identified and marked. It was parallel to and in close proximity to the location where the new communications cable was to be installed. A restaurant/bar and 3 homes were destroyed by fire. Fortunately, there was no loss of life and no one was seriously injured, but the disruption to the lives of the three families who lost their homes and the economic impact to those who lost their businesses shows how each one of these accidents - whether they receive media attention or not - can be devastating.

The Safety Board has been actively promoting the need for damage protection programs for many years. Just two months ago, the Safety Board called for improved damage prevention programs for directional drilling operations, following our investigation of the Indianapolis accident. In December 1997, the Safety Board completed a major study on damage prevention titled Protecting Public Safety Through Excavation Damage Prevention.

The study addressed essential elements of an effective damage prevention program, the accuracy of information that currently is available regarding buried facilities, and the adequacy of current system measures, reporting requirements, and data collection. We found that we needed a detailed and comprehensive review and evaluation of damage prevention programs, and made 26 safety recommendations to government regulators and industry organizations. Specifically, the Safety Board recommended that RSPA:

On October 30, 1998, Kelley Coyner provided a letter updating the status of actions underway in response to these recommendations. Safety Board staff has since met with RSPA staff, to further promote action on these important issues. Although RSPA has taken steps toward favorable action on these recommendations, I hope that the Common Ground study - which addresses many of the very issues raised in those Safety Board recommendations - will now spur RSPA and the industry to complete work on those recommendations.

The Members of Congress also recognized the seriousness of activities that lead to damaged pipelines when it passed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) in 1998. It found that:

Following the Board's 1997 report, Congress asked for a review of one-call system best practices and a study of damage prevention practices. This symposium and the study you are presenting today are the results of that review.

I look forward to reading your study in detail, and learning about the best practices you have collected. The information should help us improve damage prevention practices across our country. I encourage you to find ways to share these important practices, and to build on the work you have done. Let's not stop here. We should continue to identify best practices of the future, and make sure operators all over the country follow them.

During my 6 years in Tennessee State government and 9 years on the national level, I have seen more than my share of reports issued by well-meaning committees and panels. I compliment you on completing this report, but that compliment is tempered because your work isn't done yet. Our job does not end with the delivery of this report today. It will not be done until these best practices have been instituted all over the country. It will not be done until we have reduced incidents of damage-caused pipeline ruptures to the smallest level possible. In the afternoon discussion today I urge you to identify meaningful ways to achieve these goals.

We will support your efforts, but I can assure you that we will not sit by quietly and watch everyone pat themselves on the back for a job well done - because the job is not yet done. We will continue to monitor progress and fulfill our mandate to inform the public of that progress, or lack of progress.

But the responsibility to get this done is not industry's alone. Industry has the responsibility to implement these changes, and government has the responsibility - through its oversight powers and practices - to make sure the changes are implemented.

Yes, you have accomplished much and deserve our congratulations, but it is now time to fulfill our shared responsibilities to ensure the care of human life and happiness in our great Nation.

Thank you for inviting me, and I look forward to many more years of progress.

 

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