The death of a construction worker whose excavator struck an underground gas line in Armstrong County last year highlights gaps in a state alert system for marking lines, according to advocates seeking a change in the law.
"Obviously, it's a terrible tragedy, but it does highlight that these risks exist, and I would argue this is an ongoing risk," said Andrew Place, vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which has renewed its call to revamp the PA One Call system.
Lawmakers are debating a bill that would renew One Call — which excavators use to report plans to dig and requires underground line owners to mark their lines with paint or flags — and move its operation to the PUC. Supporters want to remove an exemption in both current law and the proposed bill that excludes the marking of some gathering lines leading from oil and gas wells in rural areas.
"Excavators should not have to worry about the existence of lines that they don't know about," said Bill Kiger, president of the Pennsylvania One Call System Inc., a West Mifflin-based nonprofit that manages the program.
The bill from Rep. Matthew Baker, R-Tioga County, exempts what are known as Class 1 lines, which are used in areas with 10 or fewer habitable structures within 660 feet of the pipeline. The exemption was created before shale gas drilling greatly increased their use and the amount of gas flowing through them. The PUC estimates there are 10,000 miles of Class 1 gathering lines in the state.
The North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition supports removing the exemption. But groups representing smaller, traditional oil and gas drillers — the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, Pennsylvania Grade Crude Coalition and Pennsylvania Independent Petroleum Producers Inc. — want to keep it.
"All the operators know where their lines are at," said Mark Cline, president of the Independent Petroleum Producers and a member of the Conventional Oil and Gas Advisory Committee formed by Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Department of Environmental Protection last year.
Even marked lines get hit because accidents happen, said Cline, who called the Armstrong fatality out of the ordinary.
"You need more than one case to pass a regulation on an industry that would cause a lot of economic impact," said Cline, who is a fourth-generation worker in Cline Oil in McKean County.
PA One Call is part of the Underground Utility Line Law that was created in 1974 and is set to expire Dec. 31. In addition to extending it by five years, Baker's bill includes the transfer of enforcement from the Department of Labor & Industry to the PUC and the elimination of some exemptions covering municipalities and PennDOT.
More than 6,000 line hits are reported to One Call every year, but that doesn't include hits to lines that are exempt from reporting, the PUC said. The agency wants to reduce hits by 50 percent by 2020.
In the Armstrong County case in July, two contractors for gas producer EQT Corp. were burned when an excavator struck an unmarked gas line owned by Snyder Bros. One later died. The construction company had notified One Call, but the line was exempt from reporting, the PUC said.
‘The biggest threat'
Baker initially introduced the bill without the oil and gas exemption in the last session. It was approved with amendments that added the exemption, but the Senate never voted on it. Baker reintroduced the bill, and it was referred to the Consumer Affairs Committee.
The bill will die if both chambers don't approve it this year. The PUC estimates its enforcement of PA One Call would cost $625,000 annually to pay a dedicated staff of six people, Commissioner John Coleman Jr. said.
The PUC inspects more than 40,000 miles of pipelines, so it would make sense for it to take over enforcement of One Call, officials said. A dedicated staff would allow tougher enforcement, Coleman said.
In 2015, 608 incident reports for hits were filed with Labor & Industry's Bureau of Labor Law Compliance, according to an agency report. The bureau collected $49,700 in penalties.
More enforcement would decrease violations, safety risks and the service outage and maintenance costs being passed on to customers, the PUC said.
"The biggest threat to underground utilities is third-party contractor hits," Coleman said.
The PUC has been advocating to the General Assembly for at least three years for changes to One Call, and Place recently wrote a letter to lawmakers urging passage of Baker's bill without the exemption. The effort was bolstered by the Feb. 18 issuance of a report by Wolf's Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force that recommended shifting enforcement authority for One Call to the PUC, commission spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said.
Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp., which owns West Penn Power and three other utilities in Pennsylvania, favors tightening the law to improve public safety, protect its equipment from damage and reduce costs passed on to consumers for maintenance, spokesman Todd Meyers said.
"Utility lines must be properly marked because even when digging down only a few inches, the risk of striking an underground utility line still exists," he said.
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority supports the bill but with the removal of the Class 1 exemption.
"All entities that may have cause to interfere with (the water) system should be treated equally in order to ensure the utmost protection for the system and the people it serves," spokesman Brendan R. Schubert said.
Tory N. Parrish is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.