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Remarks before the Damage Prevention Conference, Las Vegas, Nevada
Mark V. Rosenker
Damage Prevention Conference, Las Vegas, Nevada

Good afternoon.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this important conference – a conference dedicated to Damage Prevention.  Excavation damage is a leading cause of pipeline accidents, and pipeline accidents can be very deadly. That is why your focus and your participation in this conference is so important. 

  • I want to thank you for being here today. 
  • Thank you for participating.
  • Thank you for sharing your lessons learned.
  • And, thank you for identifying and promoting actions that can be taken to prevent future accidents. 

The work you do at this conference is indeed, very important. The care that you take -- to mark and protect pipelines, and to excavate safely, can save lives. By establishing and following safe procedures, you will save lives. 

At the National Transportation Safety Board, we recently celebrated our 40th Anniversary.  40 years ago, excavation damage to pipelines was a serious issue.  And, it is a serious issue today.  

In 1968, a city crew was repairing a water main in Reading, Pennsylvania when it damaged a gas service line with a backhoe. The gas service line did not break at that spot; however, it separated from the gas main about 14 feet away. Two hours later, a building exploded killing all 9 occupants. 

Also in 1968, a bulldozer working in front of a children’s nursery in Hapeville, Georgia broke a gas service line. A few minutes later, an explosion in the nursery killed 7 children and 2 adults.  The following year, in 1969, a contractor for a telephone utility company that was installing underground cable damaged a 10-inch gas line near Vandyne, Wisconsin.  The gas ignited, killed one of the contractor’s employees, and injured 3 others. 

Today, we continue to investigate pipeline accidents caused by excavation damage.  And, we remain committed to reducing these types of accidents. By attending this conference, you too have demonstrated your support for preventing excavation accidents.

Three issues stubbornly persist as safety issues in our accident investigations:

  • Inadequate one-call notification practices,
  • Inadequate excavation practices, and
  • Failure to promptly notify authorities after damage to a pipeline.

Data from the Common Ground Alliance’s -- Damage Information Reporting Tool, known by its acronym “DIRT,” identifies inadequate one-call notification practices and inadequate excavation practices as the two most frequent cause-categories for reported damages.  DIRT, by the way, was generated as a response to a Safety Board recommendation made in 1998 to the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to develop a plan for collecting excavation damage exposure data.

Properly using the one-call system before beginning excavation work should be obvious to everyone.  However, it is not.

According to 2006 data collected by the Common Ground Alliance, of 49,000 incidents reported last year involving excavation damage to gas lines, there was no prior contact with a one-call center before the damage in over 50 per cent of the incidents.

Although most of the 49,000 incidents did not have catastrophic consequences, the risk of more serious results is unacceptable.

I would like to personally thank the all of the people and organizations that have worked tirelessly, over the years, to make one-call systems around the country more effective. Additionally, many more have worked hard to roll out the 811 number earlier this year as the National Call-Before-You-Dig Number. I believe that the 811 number will facilitate greater and more effective use of the one-call system.  Congratulations to everyone in this room who helped implement this very, very important project.

However, now that we have the 811 national one-call number, we must all promote it – publicize it – and demand that it be used.  There is no excuse for not calling one-call before digging.

I note that the Common Ground Alliance has information available on its web site that can be downloaded, free of charge, to facilitate the use of the 811 number.  I urge each of you today to step forward and promote it, promote it, promote it.

And, when promotion doesn’t work – PHMSA and the states must work together to enforce one-call safety requirements.  They must send the message that digging without calling first is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

Calling one-call before you dig is so very important. But, it is also important to always verify that an entire proposed excavation site has been properly assessed and marked for underground utilities.  To borrow an old saying, excavators should “Trust But Verify.”

In Wilmington, Delaware, in 2003, sidewalk and curb replacement work was scheduled. A project coordinator identified an address for a contractor to perform the work. The contractor called Miss Utility for that address, and the gas lines were marked in yellow at that address.

After the gas lines were marked, the project coordinator decided that adjacent addresses needed similar work and identified those locations in white paint to show the additional scope of work. However, no one phoned one-call to have these additional areas marked.  This left a gas service line unmarked in the expanded scope of work area.

The contactor’s work crew arrived, but didn’t compare the scope of work to the information identified on the one-call ticket.  The contractor’s crew assumed it was safe to dig where there were no yellow markings.

The contractor’s backhoe dug into the unmarked gas service line. Although the service line did not leak where it was hit, the contact caused the gas line to break several feet away, inside an adjacent home. The crew made no emergency calls, and about 15 minutes later an explosion destroyed that home, and destroyed and damaged several others; 14 people were injured.

Another major contributor to excavation damage is inadequate excavation practices.

One of the deadliest pipeline accidents in history occurred in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1996.  Because of a leak from a plastic service line, propane gas migrated underground, entered a commercial building, and exploded. Thirty-three people were killed and many more were injured.

Our investigation revealed that a bend in the plastic gas line apparently resulted from backfilling or compacting of soil during a water line installation underneath the gas service line. This generated a point of stress intensification, which led to a crack in the plastic piping.

More recently, in Bergenfield, New Jersey in December 2005, a natural gas explosion killed 3 people and injured 5 others. A contractor, in order to remove an underground oil tank, dug a trench immediately adjacent to a gas service line. Because of unstable soil, part of the trench, with the gas line embedded in it, shifted. This resulted in overstress damage to the gas line, and the underground release and migration of natural gas into an apartment building, which then exploded. 

Our investigation found that the contractor failed to adequately protect the gas line from shifting soil during excavation.

Most excavators are knowledgeable, responsible, and follow safe excavation practices. However, obvious things that can lead to accidents may be overlooked, such as not shoring an unstable trench. Excavators must be sure that they have adequate written procedures, and that crews are trained to follow them.

The final issue that I will address today, is the need to promptly notify authorities when a pipeline is damaged. In the Wilmington accident, the excavation crew did not consider the possibility that the backhoe strike to the gas line would have caused it to fail inside the nearby home. Because the crew did not anticipate such an occurrence, no emergency calls were made to alert authorities until after the explosion.

Years earlier (1998) in downtown St. Cloud, Minnesota, an excavator damaged a gas service line but did not call 911, and waited about 30 minutes to call the pipeline operator.  By the time personnel from the pipeline operator arrived on scene, it was too late to assess the situation and take actions necessary to either prevent an explosion or to avoid loss of life.  Four people were killed, 11 were injured, and 6 buildings were destroyed. 

As a result of this accident, the Board recommended that PHMSA take the lead in developing a Common Ground Alliance best practice that advises excavators to immediately notify the pipeline operator if their work damages a pipeline, and to call 911 if the damage results in a release of natural gas or other hazardous substance.

As a result, there is now a Common Ground Alliance best practice on the books that advises just that. At the same time, we sent a sister recommendation to OSHA to make the best practice mandatory for excavators. OSHA issued a bulletin that advises contractors to follow this best practice, but continues to study whether to make the advisory mandatory.

In the meantime, last December, the Pipeline, Inspection, Protection, Enforcement, and Safety Act of 2006 was enacted.  This Act requires excavators who damage a pipeline, that may endanger life or cause serious bodily harm or damage to property, to promptly notify the pipeline operator, and to call 911 if the damage results in a release of flammable, toxic, or corrosive gas or liquid.

We are watching closely, how this provision will be implemented and enforced.   Prompt notification is an important and common sense requirement. 

In the past 40 years, our population has grown from approximately 200 million people to over 300 million people.  Our population has moved closer and closer to pipeline right-of-ways.  And, thousands and thousands of miles of new underground utilities have been added to serve our growing population.  Further, competition from cable and fiber optic service providers to our neighborhoods have added yet another web of underground facilities that did not exist 40 years ago.

Today, there are more people, more homes, more schools, more businesses and more underground facilities. Nevertheless, excavation damage is preventable. 
We must be more vigilant than ever before.

  • Use 811 to notify one-call.
  • Promote the use of 811.
  • Verify markings at proposed excavation sites.
  • Establish and train employees to follow safe excavation practices.
  • And, promptly notify pipeline operators and emergency responders whenever pipelines are damaged.

Your actions can save lives. 

Thank you.




Speeches & Testimony