Remarks of Honorable Mark V. Rosenker, Acting Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
at the
Damage Prevention Conference
in Las Vegas, Nevada
December 10, 2008

Good morning.  Thank you for the opportunity to return to this important conference – a conference dedicated to Damage Prevention.  Excavation damage continues to be a leading cause of pipeline accidents, accidents that are preventable.

must do their part to prevent excavation accidents.

If any one person fails to do his or her job properly, there may be no second chance.  Safety is everyone’s responsibility. 

Many of you attended this conference last year, and some of you are here for the first time this year.  

Your work at this conference is very important. As I said last year, and will repeat today, your actions and the programs you implement -- to mark and protect pipelines, to excavate safely, and to enforce safe practices, can save lives.

I recognize that I am speaking to an audience who understands that damage prevention is important.  That is why you are here today.  

So how can you help?

You must –

You cannot be complacent. You cannot wait for others to act. You must be proactive and you must make safety first.

Last year, I talked to you about excavation accidents that happened as long as 40 years ago.  Today, excavation damage is still a leading cause of pipeline accidents. 

According to 20 years of data collected by the Department of Transportation, about one third of serious pipeline accidents have been caused by excavation damage.

Have we made improvements? Yes.

Do we need to do more? Yes.

The DOT’s accident database shows an average of 20 serious pipeline accidents per year, reaching a high of 34 in 1989.  Last year, there were 13 serious accidents, still too many.

We have all recognized excavation damage accidents to be a serious problem and that actions are needed to address safety issues.

Organizations, such as the Common Ground Alliance, were created and “Best Practices” were developed to address industry-wide safety issues.  A national one-call phone number – 811 – was established last year to make it easier for anyone planning excavation work to communicate quickly and effectively with underground utilities.

One-call centers have improved communications, incorporated GPS technology to improve accuracy, and provide feedback to excavators when work site inspections have been completed and underground facilities have been marked.

Additionally, new technology has been developed to more accurately locate underground facilities.

However, while actions are being taken to improve the identification and marking of underground utilities, our population has continued to grow. Thousands and thousands of miles of new underground facilities have been added.  And, the construction of new homes, businesses and roadways increases the potential for striking underground facilities during excavation activities.

We must be more diligent now than ever before.

Three issues stubbornly persist as safety issues in our accident investigations. These issues have not changed since last year:

Last week, the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) released its Damage Information and Reporting Tool report (the DIRT report) for Calendar Year 2007.  Industry stakeholders voluntarily submit their underground facility event data to DIRT. Facility events are defined in DIRT as “the occurrence of downtime, damages, and near misses.”

Over 121,000 facility events were reported in 2007, an increase of 16% over 2006.  And, while CGA cautions users against drawing conclusions based on the data, in part because different organizations may submit reports one year but not in other years, the data is very telling. It identifies thousands of near misses that could have resulted in serious accidents. 

The DIRT report identifies root causes for over 44,000 facility events. The data indicates that Locating Practices were not sufficient in 21% of the events and that Notification Practices were not sufficient in 9% of the events. The report indicates that problems attributed to insufficient locating and notification practices are increasing.

The report also found that the share of reported events where notifications to one-call centers were not made, had declined to 35%, and suggested that this decline may be linked to the new 811 national call before you dig program.  But you and I know that the number of people failing to notify One-Call is still way too high and unacceptable.

The 2007 DIRT report also identifies which industry was conducting excavation work when an event occurred for almost 70,000 reported events.  It found that:

To those of you who participate in the voluntary reporting program, I believe that you are on the right track. Data being developed through this voluntary reporting system can help you focus program activities.

While pipelines struck during excavation work may fail immediately, we also have found that pipelines struck during excavation work may not fail until years later.  

Most recently, we investigated a natural gas pipeline accident in Plum Borough, Pennsylvania. The accident occurred on March 5, 2008. 

Natural gas, leaking from a steel pipeline migrated into a house, accumulated, and exploded.  One person in the house was killed, a 4-year girl was seriously injured, 3 houses were destroyed and 11 other homes in the neighborhood were damaged.

Five years earlier, a sewer line to the house was replaced. The sewer line crossed the gas pipeline near the location where the pipeline later failed. According to Pennsylvania One-Call records, the only recorded excavation in the area was the replacement of the sewer line in 2003.

The dents and the deformation in the pipeline indicate that it had been struck from below by something more powerful than a hand shovel. We determined that the probable cause of the accident was excavation damage to the 2-inch natural gas distribution pipeline that stripped the pipe’s protective coating and made the pipe susceptible to corrosion and failure.

Following an explosion in St. Cloud, Minnesota in 1998, we recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) require excavators to notify the pipeline operator immediately if their work damages a pipeline and to call 911 if the damage results in a leak.  We are disappointed that action was not taken by OSHA to implement this recommendation. 

However, the PIPES Act of 2006, as passed by the United States Congress, now gives the Department of Transportation strong enforcement authority on this issue.  The Act states that a person engaged in excavation who damages a pipeline facility must report the damage to the owner or operator of the facility and if the damage results in a release, must promptly call the 911 emergency telephone number.

I hope that the Department of Transportation will make it very clear to anyone doing excavation work: It is inexcusable to damage a pipeline and to not report the damage.

Our accident investigations have clearly found that failure to report excavation damage to a pipeline can result in catastrophic consequences years later, injuring and killing innocent victims.  

When promotion of safe practices doesn’t work – the Federal government and states must be ready to enforce safety requirements.  The Department of Transportation must let it be known that failing to report excavation damage to a pipeline will not be tolerated and it must take strong action to stop this unsafe practice. 

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today and for your personal efforts to improve excavation safety.


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