Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Keynote address for the Damage Prevention Convention, Boston, Massachusetts
Jim Hall
Damage Prevention Convention, Boston, Massachusetts

Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here today to discuss an issue of great importance to all Americans - excavation damage prevention. As you know, excavation damage is a leading cause of pipeline accidents in the United States. Because of the significance of this problem, in 1997, the National Transportation Safety Board added damage prevention to underground facilities to its list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements. Today, I want to focus my remarks on three damage prevention issues that we have seen repeatedly in our accident investigations: not using the one-call system, unsafe excavation practices, and failure to notify authorities after an incident.

However, before I go on, let me introduce members of the Safety Board staff who are with me today -- Bob Chipkevich, Jack Fox, and Jamie Pericola.

As many of you may know, the Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged with investigating major transportation accidents, determining the probable cause of those accidents, and making safety recommendations to prevent a recurrence. Since 1967, we have investigated over 400 pipeline accidents and issued over 1,100 safety recommendations that we believe, if they were followed, would prevent similar accidents from occurring.

Excavation damage is almost entirely preventable. If excavators and others involved in excavation activities would all institute and follow adequate safety practices, the numbers and tragic consequences of pipeline accidents could be greatly reduced.

Since I spoke at your first Damage Prevention Convention two years ago in Atlanta, many of you have participated in the study of one-call systems and damage prevention best practices initiated by the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) in response to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. I want to commend those of you who volunteered your time and energies to that important task for your commitment to addressing the critical problem of damage to underground utilities. Although the project's participants came from a variety of backgrounds, and had differing views, they agreed to put public safety first, and reached what the study promised in its title: Common Ground.

  Currently, there are over 2 million miles of natural gas pipelines and about 157,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines running under the United States, much of it under our cities and towns. In addition, nearly 70 percent of new homes are now provided service for natural gas. Add to that the innumerable communications, water, sewer, cable TV, and other utility lines that are also being buried. In all, the U.S. underground infrastructure comprises about 20 million miles of pipe, cable and wire. If laid end to end, that material would be enough to wrap around the earth over 800 times. More utility lines are being buried underground every day. The bottom line is that no one can dig anywhere in the country without a part of the country's underground utility infrastructure being close by - too close not to take every precaution possible before moving one shovel of dirt.

Obtaining accurate data on the number of pipeline accidents caused by excavation damage is difficult - if not impossible. RSPA's pipeline accident report form includes causal categories, but the list is poorly designed. RSPA's web page for natural gas distribution pipeline accidents lists just seven categories of cause, ranging from "accidentally caused by operator" to "outside force damage" to "other." Although we know that excavation damage is a leading cause of pipeline accidents, it is not specifically indicated as a category on RSPA's reporting form. As a result, most excavation damage accidents are reported as "outside force damage," "other," or "accidentally caused by operator." However, accident reports with additional explanatory comments such as "lightening strike," "vandalism," "drilled into pipe," and "bullet hole" also appear in the "outside force damage" and "other" categories.

In 1999, RSPA data indicated that "outside force damage" was the leading cause of gas distribution pipeline accidents. The second leading cause was "other." The Safety Board has repeatedly indicated to RSPA that the definitions of accident causes are imprecise and that the distinctions between categories are vague. Such deficiencies preclude effective accident trend analysis and performance evaluation. Therefore, the Safety Board has recommended that RSPA revise the cause categories on its gas and hazardous liquid pipeline accident report forms to eliminate overlapping and confusing categories, to clearly list excavation damage as one of the data elements, and to consider developing subcategories.

Although more accurate data collection will help identify the causes of pipeline accidents, data alone won't help us prevent them. As I mentioned earlier, the Board has identified three damage prevention issues that, if addressed, could either prevent an accident or mitigate the consequences of an accident. They are:

  • Inadequate use of the one-call system,
  • Unsafe excavation practices when underground facilities are near excavation work, and
  • Inadequate notification to appropriate authorities after damage has occurred.

Using the one-call system should be a first step contractors take before beginning any excavation work. All of you know that the one-call system is designed as a communication tool that allows excavators and underground facility owners to effectively coordinate with one another.

Before an excavator begins digging, the excavator calls the one-call system and provides the location of the proposed excavation. The underground facility owners can then arrange to have their facilities marked so that the excavator knows where the facilities are and can avoid them. It sounds simple - in fact, it is simple -- but too many times excavators fail to make that critical call.

In 1996, the Safety Board investigated an accident near Gramercy, Louisiana, in which almost half a million gallons of gasoline leaked into a nearby marsh and river after a pipeline was damaged during excavation activities. Apparently a contractor damaged the pipeline about six months before the rupture actually occurred. The Board couldn't find any evidence that the contractor had used the one-call system or made any attempt to coordinate the excavation activities with the pipeline's owner.

Two days ago, the Safety Board adopted a report of yet another tragic pipeline accident. In January 1999, in Bridgeport, Alabama, a backhoe operator damaged a natural gas service line that resulted in two leaks. One leak occurred after the backhoe bucket contacted and pulled the natural gas service line.

The second leak occurred where the gas service line separated at a joint near a building. Gas then migrated from the separated line into the building and eventually ignited. An explosion followed, killing three people, injuring five others, and destroying three buildings.

The investigation revealed that the contractor had failed to use the one-call system. Although two persons involved in the accident told our investigators that they had marked the gas service line before they began digging, we saw no signs of markings.

Calling the one-call center and marking the underground facilities can't prevent every accident. Excavators must also ensure the safety and adequacy of their excavation procedures when they're working near underground utilities.

In the Bridgeport, Alabama accident, the contractor knew that there was a gas service line in the area and said that he had marked it. However, there was no indication that he had instructed his backhoe operator to use appropriate precautions - such as hand digging or establishing a tolerance zone around the line - when he dug close to the gas service line. As a result, the backhoe damaged the gas service line.

The 1996 accident in San Juan, Puerto Rico was the deadliest pipeline accident ever investigated by the Safety Board. Thirty-three people died as a result of a propane gas explosion.

During our investigation, Safety Board investigators found a cracked and leaking 1-1/4 inch diameter plastic pipe close to the explosion. Beneath that pipe was a 16-inch diameter water pipeline, which had been installed some time after the plastic pipe.

The Safety Board concluded that the manner in which the water line was installed imposed excessive stresses on the plastic gas service pipeline and resulted in the pipe's later failure. And, we believed that the accident could have been avoided had appropriate precautions been taken to protect the plastic pipeline during subsequent excavation activities.

In 1997, in Indianapolis, Indiana, one person was killed and six homes were destroyed after directional drilling operations damaged a 20-inch diameter natural gas pipeline.

The drilling damage had actually occurred about two months prior to the failure and went undetected until the 20-inch gas line was being returned to service. The Safety Board found that adequate controls were not in place to ensure that directional drilling operations would not damage other underground facilities. Following our investigation, the Safety Board recommended that industry develop safe practices for directional drilling operations.

In December 1998 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a natural gas explosion killed four individuals and destroyed six buildings in the downtown area. As a contractor was installing a utility pole anchor close to a natural gas service pipeline, the anchor hit a buried granite slab, followed the slab, and severed the gas line. The Safety Board found that the contractor's procedures were inadequate because they did not address unusual circumstances, such as striking a significant underground obstacle.

In its report this past July, the Safety Board issued recommendations to various contractor associations to advise their members to review and revise their anchor installation procedures as necessary to ensure that safety margins around buried utilities are observed throughout the installation process.

In June 1999, in Bellingham, Washington, a 16-inch diameter pipeline ruptured spilling gasoline into a creek and into a park. About 90 minutes later, the gasoline ignited, resulting in a fireball that traveled approximately 1 1/2 miles downstream from the pipeline failure location. Two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year old young man lost their lives as a result of this tragic accident. Eight others were injured, and the City of Bellingham's water supply was threatened. Additionally, approximately ¼ million gallons of gasoline were released and the resulting fire caused substantial environmental damage to the surrounding parkland.

Although our investigation is still ongoing, our investigators found external damage on the pipe near the location where it failed. We are investigating to determine whether unsafe excavation practices may have lead to the external damage on the pipeline.

Once a pipeline is damaged, it is critical that the proper authorities are immediately notified. In too many cases, we have found that the consequences of an accident are greater because the appropriate organizations weren't notified in a timely manner.

In the Bellingham accident investigation, we are investigating to determine not only how the pipeline was damaged, but also why it wasn't repaired and whether the damage had ever been reported to the pipeline owner.

Following the Gramercy, Louisiana accident, the investigation revealed that the excavators who damaged the pipeline made no effort to identify and notify the pipeline owner so that the damage could be assessed and corrective measures taken. Had the excavators immediately notified the pipeline operator that its pipeline may have been damaged, repairs or replacements could have been made that would have prevented the accident.

After severing the pipeline in St. Cloud, the contractor did not promptly call either 911 or the utility owner. Gas escaped and migrated into the basement of a nearby building for about 40 minutes before it exploded.

Had the contractor called 911 or the utility owner immediately after the rupture, emergency responders and the utility owner may have been able to assess the risk and to take actions that could have either prevented the explosion or saved the four lives lost in that accident.

As a result of its investigation into the St. Cloud accident, the Safety Board issued a recommendation to RSPA to include a new best practice in the Common Ground study that would advise excavators to notify the pipeline operator immediately if their work damages a pipeline and to call 911 (or other local emergency response number) immediately if the damage results in a release of natural gas or other hazardous substance or potentially endangers life, health, or property.

The Safety Board also issued a recommendation to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require excavators to make this notification under these circumstances.

In 1994, the Safety Board and RSPA sponsored a workshop on excavation damage prevention that brought together pipeline operators, excavators, trade associations, and government agencies to identify and recommend ways to improve damage prevention programs. Many of you here today may have attended that meeting.

As a result of that workshop, in 1997, the Board completed a major study on damage prevention titled Protecting Public Safety Through Excavation Damage Prevention. That study addressed essential elements of an effective damage prevention program, the need for accurate information on the location of buried facilities, and the need for system performance measures.

The report included 26 safety recommendations to industry and government that called for improved one-call systems, improved technology for locating underground utilities, improved marking and mapping of underground facilities, improved training programs, and improved participation in excavation damage prevention programs. There has been progress in each of these areas, but not enough. We need to do more.

It will take the cooperation and dedication of everyone, at every level of an organization and at every level of government to create an environment that nurtures safe practices and makes safety a priority in a corporation's strategic planning and day-to-day operations. Accidents aren't caused by a single factor - and they don't occur in a vacuum. Safety and accident prevention must be everyone's concern and responsibility - an organization's leadership must be committed to safety and to making sure that everyone knows, by word and deed, that it is a priority.

Make safety your number one priority and carry that message back to your organization and then be sure it's incorporated into a part of your standard operating procedures. Make sure your employees don't cut corners to save time. Plan ahead, and then check and double check that all safety procedures are followed.

Thank you for inviting me to be here today.