Supporters of One Call reform lament passage of 'bare minimum' bill
Supporters of a bill to improve protections for underground infrastructure such as gas pipelines criticized the passage of a watered-down version of the measure that extends the current law for a year without building in more safeguards.
Senate Bill 1235 passed the Pennsylvania legislature on Wednesday, preventing the current law from expiring as scheduled on Dec. 31, and giving lawmakers another 12 months to seek a solution.
The original version of the Underground Utility Line Protection Law, better known as the OneCall Law, would have ended exemptions for so-called Class 1 gathering lines that connect natural gas wells with major pipelines in rural areas; required operators of pipes and wires to map abandoned lines, and transferred enforcement powers from the Department of Labor to the Public Utility Commission, which supported the bill.
But the bill that was sent to Gov. Tom Wolf late Wednesday removed all the provisions except for the one-year extension, prompting protests from supporters of the earlier version.
Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican from the 20th District who was the prime sponsor of the original bill, called it a “direct, uncomplicated, inexpensive” way to improve safety but criticized lawmakers who removed the proposed safety provisions.
“Unfortunately, none of those improvements are contained in the measure the House of Representatives has returned to us,” she said in a speech to lawmakers. “Rather, we have the bare minimum, for reasons that are simply unexplainable.”
Without the fuller version of the bill, workers are left exposed to danger by accidentally hitting underground lines, while there is still a higher risk of environmental damage and service disruption, Baker said.
“The public and local officials and emergency responders will ask why measures were not taken to prevent it when we had the chance,” Sen. Baker said. “This one-year extension does not really change anything.”
In July 2015, a backhoe hit an unmarked natural gas line in Armstrong County, causing an explosion that led to the operator’s death early this year.
Rep. Bob Godshall, a Montgomery County Republican who sponsored another bill proposing only the one-year extension, said the bill that passed would “give legislators and stakeholders time to take a comprehensive look at recent issues that have been raised.”
Bill Kiger, chief executive of PA One Call, said he was disappointed by the outcome, in contrast with the original bill which he said would have improved safety. He said class 1 natural gas gathering lines, whose exemption from the law would have ended under the full version of the bill, are still dangerous if an excavator accidentally hits them.
The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association argued that the exemption for class 1 lines should remain, saying that line operators should not have to pay the cost of notifications by people working near the lines.
“Gathering lines, no matter what PIOGA says, are dangerous,” Kiger said. “They killed a dozer operator last July. That left three little children and a wife without a husband or a father.”