Most people don’t think about excavation until a construction project increases noise levels in their neighborhood or lengthens their morning commute. Unfortunately, when a major event that captures the public’s attention — like the April 17 explosion in Firestone — occurs, it’s too late.
The scary thing is most states, including Colorado, have yet to adopt “damage prevention” laws — the laws that govern the processes and procedures surrounding excavation — adequate to prevent these incidents, despite evidence that strict governmental enforcement and enhanced communication capabilities would have an outsized impact on safety.
According to The Denver Post, “nearly 1,300 gas pipelines in Colorado were damaged during excavation” in 2015. Yet, no civil penalties or sanctions were issued by the state that year. The U.S. Department of Transportation made note of that fact in a letter to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission last summer, writing that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration “encourages Colorado damage prevention stakeholders to work with policy makers to pass legislation that addresses the inadequacies in the state’s excavation damage prevention program.”
The best place to start is enforcement.
Data from the Common Ground Alliance demonstrates empowering a state agency with enforcement authority and aggressively enforcing damage prevention laws is far more effective than the owner-operator enforcement mechanism used in Colorado, where the pipeline owner must pursue civil penalties from a party who damages their line in court. Putting the onus on the operator to pursue the penalty makes it more likely that even if a particular state had stringent excavation process laws and regulations, their benefits would not be fully recognized.
And, while it is obvious that strong enforcement programs are instrumental in improving damage prevention outcomes, other benefits of strong enforcement are less obvious. For example, better enforcement and the costs associated with non-compliance can impact cost-benefit considerations from a business perspective.
This is meaningful, because a rigorous damage prevention program should encourage or require investments in the best available safety technologies. Many companies are reluctant to increase overhead costs above what is required up front, even if the outcome is to improve safety, but increasing the cost of an incident may make safety investments more financially attractive.
J.D. Maniscalco, who runs Colorado’s 811 program, told The Post that the “one thing we find when damage occurs is that something was dropped. There was a failure in communication. Communication seems to always be the issue when we look at damages.”
This makes sense, because while it is true that all incidents are directly caused by a misstep during the excavation or excavation planning process, many could have be avoided by improving communication and information sharing practices up front.
In fact, a pilot program in Virginia tested a system called Enhanced Positive Response, or EPR, a few years ago to do just that. EPR uses a host of technologies aimed at improving communication practices throughout the project by documenting and sharing information in real time to all parties involved in the excavation process.
All information is stored on a secure portal when it can be updated and accessed during and after a project is complete. The results were promising: 93 percent of excavators and 88 percent of facility owners involved in the pilot said EPR made the job site safer. Further, systemwide damages fell by 67 percent compared to the same time period in the previous year.
It’s impossible to say for certain at this point exactly what steps the legislature could have taken that may have prevented the Firestone accident from occurring. But we do know that similar incidents with far less severe consequences occur frequently in Colorado — nearly four times per day, in fact.
Updating excavation safety laws to facilitate better job-site communication, and strengthening enforcement for violations that do occur, would be a large step towards making sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Brigham McCown, a member of President Trump’s transition team, is an attorney and adviser to public and private sector clients interested in matters pertaining to energy, transportation, homeland security, and the environment.