This month’s fatal pipeline rupture near Bakersfield highlights a challenge that has vexed state, federal and private-sector officials in recent years: how to improve coordination between natural gas utilities and excavation contractors to better protect public safety.
Largely a result of the 2010 pipeline rupture that killed eight people in San Bruno, government and industry have been looking for ways to avoid potentially dangerous outcomes when contractors dig without knowing the location of underground utilities — or receive inaccurate or untimely information from pipeline owners.
One of the more promising developments has been a private accord announced last month after years of sometimes contentious talks between San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and members of the California trade group United Contractors. The agreement called for PG&E to hire more pipeline markers and train them better, among other measures.
The trade group presented PG&E with contractor survey data suggesting the utility had “systematic” problems providing accurate and timely pipeline location information, said Mark Breslin, president and CEO of United Contractors, which represents 500 companies doing $30 billion per year in contracting work statewide.
But because of the new agreement, he said, PG&E is “looking to professionalize the (underground utility) locator career.”
DEADLY LACK OF COORDINATION
Despite this and other efforts, a lack of coordination between utility and contractor appears to have played a role in the gas line rupture that killed an equipment operator and badly injured two other people Nov. 13 at Houghton and Wible roads, as well as in a similar accident involving the same companies a year before in the same area.
Schools and residents were evacuated in the earlier incident but no one was hurt because escaping gas did not ignite.
As is often the case in such accidents, both have involved finger-pointing between the pipeline owner, PG&E, and the contractor, McFarland-based Big N Deep Ag Development Co.
In the more recent incident, PG&E says Big N Deep illegally dug with an expired excavation permit when, while preparing farmland for new almond plantings, it struck the utility’s 3-foot-diameter, high-pressure transmission pipeline. The contractor says the expiration is irrelevant.
In the earlier accident, state investigators have tentatively faulted PG&E for failing to mark the pipeline and having a representative on site during the excavation, as requested by Big N Deep. PG&E has appealed the preliminary finding, saying the contractor did not wait the required 48 hours between calling for a pipeline marking and beginning to dig.
Although the accord between PG&E and United Contractors has been praised by both sides as a way to prevent such accidents going forward, less encouraging was the fate of a measure passed by the state Legislature that would have created a panel to enforce new and existing pipeline excavation provisions.
Contractors largely supported the bill, which was to become effective Jan. 1., and PG&E backed parts of it. But Gov. Jerry Brown declined last month to sign the bill, saying he disagreed with its proposal to take authority away from the California Public Utilities Commission. Supporters say they expect the proposal to return to the Legislature next year.
There is a possibility of intervention by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. New rules set to take effect Jan. 1 give the agency power to go after companies responsible for damaging pipelines in states without adequate damage prevention measures.
The administration has not determined whether it will take action in California, an agency spokesman said. But if it does, the state will have the opportunity to appeal that decision.
HOW IT WORKS
Contractors — or anyone, for that matter — are supposed to dial 8-1-1 before they excavate as a notice to any utility with an underground installation in the area.
When that happens, the call system’s operator sends along information to utilities like PG&E, which are then obligated to send out a locator within two days to mark where pipelines and other sensitive conduits are located. Once the mark is in place, the contractor has 28 days to perform the digging.
The process often fails at different levels, said a contractor safety coordinator who spoke on condition of anonymity because his company deals with PG&E.
Sometimes contractors are negligent when underground utilities are damaged during excavation, the coordinator said, but often the utility company is at fault because it failed to mark a pipeline accurately or within the 48 hours allotted by law.
“In our experience, the majority of issues we find are unmarked or mismarked” pipelines, the coordinator said. The person added that bad record-keeping, such as information on the depth of some lines, is sometimes to blame.
PG&E is not the only utility with problems in this regard, but it can be “a little more difficult to deal with” because of the locator personnel it sends out to mark pipelines, the coordinator said.
“There have been a lot of issues with locators and who they send out and their qualifications,” the person said.
Whether the new agreement between PG&E and United Contractors resolves these problems, the safety coordinator said, “time will tell.”
PG&E said safety is its highest priority. It noted that by the end of this year, it will have conducted more than 30 safe-digging workshops in English, Spanish and Chinese.
“The purpose of these workshops is to help educate contractors about the importance of calling 811 before digging, give them an understanding of PG&E’s processes around locating and marking underground lines, as well as hearing their feedback,” the company said in a written statement.