Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Accidents on the Rise, But State Law on Digging Near Pipelines Unenforced and ‘Riddled’ With Exemptions

Many entities are exempted from state rules regulating digging near pipelines, and no state agency has the authority to punish those who cause digging-related accidents.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Signs warn excavators to call before digging near underground pipelines, but many entities are exempted from such rules. And no state agency has the authority to punish those who cause digging-related pipeline accidents.

Most pipeline accidents in Oklahoma are caused by digging, and the state’s rate of digging-related pipeline accidents — which have resulted in eight deaths and 10 injuries — is on the rise.

But Oklahoma’s pipeline law is “riddled with exemptions and lacks an enforcement mechanism,” which could mean intervention from the federal government, The Oklahoman‘s Paul Monies reports:

If the state doesn’t act, the federal government could step in to use its enforcement authority for pipeline excavation accidents and for issuing civil penalties. The state also could lose out on federal grants for the Call Okie service and other damage prevention programs.

Many Oklahomans are familiar with the “Call Okie” service that helps locate underground pipelines and utility lines for homeowners who plan on digging, but many entities — counties, cities and contractors working on road projects, railroads, agricultural operations, cemeteries, to name a few — are exempt from the notification requirements, the paper reports.

The federal pipeline agency doesn’t have a problem with exemptions, but it wants states to provide data and the reasons for exemptions. Oklahoma does neither. Part of the problem is the state’s exemptions are based on entities, not activities. For example, a private company digging a trench has to use Call Okie. A county or city crew doing the same type of excavation does not.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is expected to propose new pipeline safety rules in the first half of 2014, so Gov. Mary Fallin in 2013 formed the Pipeline Safety Task Force to study the issue, The Oklahoman reports.

Oklahoma is one of nine states with no enforcement authority to punish those who accidentally damage pipelines by digging, the paper reports. One of the task force’s recommendations was to give the Corporation Commission that authority.

Those with exemptions generally want to keep them, Corporation Commissioner and task force chair Dana Murphy tells the paper, but the pipeline industry is among those pushing to remove them.

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