Exemptions, lack of enforcement hamper Oklahoma's law on digging near pipelines

Federal regulators are expected to issue rules later this year to address state safety practices for digging near pipelines. A state task force created by Gov. Mary Fallin addressed the problems with Oklahoma's law, which is riddled with exemptions and lacks an enforcement mechanism.
by Paul Monies Modified: January 9, 2014 at 9:28 pm •  Published: January 10, 2014
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Most homeowners wanting to dig on their property know about the state's Call Okie service that helps locate pipelines and other underground utility lines, but the law setting it up is riddled with exemptions.

Counties and cities working on road projects don't have to Call Okie. Neither do contractors working on their behalf in rights of way. That's become a problem as pipeline excavation accidents continue to increase in Oklahoma.

Most of the recent pipeline incidents have focused on ruptures or corrosion of pipelines. But damage from digging remains the biggest cause of pipeline accidents. Since 1986, there have been 144 pipeline accidents in Oklahoma from excavation projects, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Those accidents resulted in eight deaths and 10 injuries.

Gov. Mary Fallin formed the Pipeline Safety Task Force last year to study the issue. The effort is meant to get ahead of federal safety regulations on excavations near pipelines. The task force issued a preliminary report in December ahead of federal rules expected in the first half of 2014.

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.

Oklahoma has several notification exemptions to the law for excavation activities, including those for state and local government, agriculture and hand or soft digging. It also has exemptions for railroads, routine maintenance and for cemeteries.

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.

Corporation Commissioner Dana Murphy, who chaired the task force, said those with an exemption generally wanted to keep it, while those without exemptions thought the law was unfair. She said more data needs to be collected on excavation accidents to see if some exemptions were justified.

“Other states' numbers have actually gone down as far as pipeline hits and such, but our numbers have not,” Murphy said. “This is something that has to be addressed. It's controversial among these different exemption groups because they've had their exemption in place a long time.”

Nationally, pipeline damage incident rates from excavation accidents in 2012 fell to 3.5 for every 1,000 tickets tracked by a one-call system, down from 3.8 per 1,000 tickets in 2010. Oklahoma has a lower incident rate, but its rate rose to 3.0 in 2012, up from 2.8 per 1,000 tickets in 2010, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Ponca City Mayor Homer Nicholson, task force vice chairman, said anybody doing excavation work has a responsibility to know what they're digging into, whether they're covered by the law or not. Exemptions should be based on the activity, he said.


by Paul Monies
Energy Reporter
Paul Monies is an energy reporter for The Oklahoman. He has worked at newspapers in Texas and Missouri and most recently was a data journalist for USA Today in the Washington D.C. area. Monies also spent nine years as a business reporter and...
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Also ...

Digging damages

National damage rates for pipeline accidents from excavation have gone down the last three years, but the rate rose in Oklahoma. Regulators look at the damage rate per 1,000 tickets processed by a state one-call center such as Call Okie.

Damage per 1,000 tickets, national:

2010: 3.8

2011: 3.7

2012: 3.5

Damage per 1,000 tickets, Oklahoma:

2010: 2.8

2011: 2.9

2012: 3.0

Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Call Okie

Call Okie handles calls by homeowners, companies and contractors for help locating underground utility lines and pipelines. It can be reached by calling 811 or online at callokie.com/locate-request/.

Incoming call volume:

2009: 542,793

2010: 575,372

2011: 644,631

2012: 739,141

2013: 798,241

SOURCE: Oklahoma One-Call

System Inc.

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