Federal Excavation Requirements Imminent

February 2013, Vol. 68 No. 2

A final rule meant to limit pipeline damage from excavation should be made final sometime later this summer. Two advisory committees voted their approval and authorized changes to the proposed rule the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued in April 2012. Many of the changes the advisory committee green lighted appeared designed to toughen requirements on excavators.

The final rule stems from a provision in The Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety (PIPES) Act of 2006. That provision essentially came about because of concerns by transmission companies that excavators were causing unnecessary, and in some instances, catastrophic pipeline accidents by digging in areas without first determining whether pipelines are present. The PIPES Act told the PHMSA to define minimum excavation damage program standards for states. If a state fails to adopt those standards and enforce them, then PHMSA will be able to seek fines from excavators who ignore a new federal standard on excavation damage, which the final rule establishes. The minimum state and new federal standard will be very similar.

Terry Boss, senior vice president at INGAA, says, "From an overall viewpoint, INGAA was happy with the committees' recommendations." But he notes it is still unclear how the PHMSA staff will translate those recommendations into regulatory language.

The key element in the final rule will be criteria the PHMSA will use to determine if each state's excavation damage prevention law meets federal standards. Almost all the criteria apply to what state laws require of excavators. INGAA had three main problems with the criteria proposed in April 2012. It appears that the amendments approved by the advisory committees instruct the PHMSA to modify the criteria in ways demanded by the group.

For example, one of the proposed criteria would have required states to demand that when a pipeline is damaged by an excavation activity, the excavator report the damage to the pipeline operator at the earliest practicable moment after the damage occurs. When damage caused by an excavation activity causes a release, the excavator would be required to contact 911.The INGAA argued that there needed to be an additional state requirement: that excavators stop work, whether there is a release or not, until the pipeline determines it is safe for work to resume.