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.
“It should be by the event, not the entity,” Nicholson said. “That way, it is more inclusive, fair and equitable, whether it's a private contractor or a municipality or whomever. It shouldn't impose any strenuous requirements that would restrict anybody doing their excavating business.”
Task force member Bruce Heine, director of government and media affairs for Tulsa's Magellan Midstream Partners LP, said his company voted against the report's recommendations because it doesn't want any exemptions in the law. Magellan owns and operates the nation's longest refined products pipeline system, an extensive network in the central United States.
“We believe that everyone should be afforded the protection that the One Call process provides — a greater assurance of public safety and environmental protection,” Heine said. “Being a representative of an exempted group doesn't protect anyone from the dangers of striking a pipeline with mechanized or hand-digging devices. Nor does an exemption from the One Call process protect the surrounding environment. The safety of our fellow Oklahomans and the environment are too important to rely upon the ‘luck' of being an exempt party.”
Oklahoma is among nine states with no enforcement authority to punish excavators who accidentally damage pipelines. The task force recommended the Corporation Commission be given that authority since it already has a pipeline safety division and an administrative law system to handle complaints, enforcement and penalties.
Andrew Black, president and CEO of the Washington-based Association of Oil Pipelines, said he was pleased the task force recommended enforcement through the Corporation Commission. But he said state legislators should not keep exemptions in the law.
“Oklahoma has a lot of pipeline miles and a program on paper that has some positive benefits, but it has no enforcement,” Black said. “What encourages me is that the people of Oklahoma are very sophisticated on energy issues; they will understand that it's important to protect all of these underground utilities, not just to protect the assets, but to protect the people who would be nearby or operating excavation equipment.”
Two state lawmakers, Rep. Weldon Watson, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Cliff Branan, R-Oklahoma City, were nonvoting members of the task force. Watson said the research and discussions from the task force will be helpful in shaping changes to state law when federal regulators issue final rules.
“It was a good exercise and opportunity to bring people together to have a discussion about these issues,” Watson said. “We just want to be prepared and wait to see what the feds will do.”
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.
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 call