Underground utility strikes and damages are all too frequent occurrences. Utility contractors know that hitting an underground utility can cause loss of life, injuries, damage to property and the environment. If you think hitting an underground utility on dry land causes problems, think what would happen if you damaged a submerged utility line along the coastal shoreline or when crossing an inland waterway.
There are an estimated 35,000 miles of pipelines in offshore, coastal and inland waters. I could not even venture a guess of how many miles of electric, telephone and fiber-optic cables are in these waters. Regardless of the lines are buried in the ground on dry land or under a waterway, underground utilities are covered by damage prevention laws. That’s right, contractors must call the One-Call (Dig Safe) system in their state before digging or disturbing the bottom of an inland waterway, which also includes lakes, rivers and streams.
The environmental and economic damage that occurs when an oil or gas pipeline is damaged in a waterway is enormous. When a submerged pipeline is damaged, repairing the line can cost millions of dollars. Then there is spill cleanup; pipeline product releases and spills cost an average of $10,000 per barrel to clean up. Similar to natural gas pipeline releases on land, submerged natural gas line releases also create a high potential for explosion and fire.
Before you dig, dredge, lay pipe, drill, drive pilings, anchor or perform any other task that will disturb the banks or bottom of a waterway, make sure to call 811 to get the underground and submerged utility lines located. In most states, anyone who plans to perform any of the above tasks must call 811 to request a locate no less than 48 hours prior to starting the work. Be sure to check your individual state law in this regard.
Although most submerged utility damages are caused by maritime operations such as when anchoring ships and boats, utility contractors are frequently called upon to install a new utility that must cross a waterway. When this happens, due diligence is absolutely necessary. Be sure your crews know what’s below the ground and the waterway before they begin.
When there is a pipeline release or spill, the goal is to stop the flow of product or natural gas as quickly as possible. If you are in a bayou or marsh and there is a pipeline marker nearby, contact the facility owner using the emergency number on the signage or marker. They will provide emergency instructions and quickly dispatch personnel to isolate the pipeline and provide emergency instructions.
If a pipeline is damaged and there is no signage or marker, contact the National Resource Center (NRC). The NRC is able to quickly locate and contact pipeline operators to isolate pipeline facilities.
The following checklist was created based on information provided by Coastal and Maritime Operators (CAMO) as a guide for mariners to prevent underwater pipeline accidents.
Before you mobilize:
- In state waters, call 811, the national call-before-you-dig number, to have pipelines and other utilities located and facility owners notified of your activity. It’s free, and it is the law in every state.
- Establish, communicate and agree upon a safe area to cross or enter the waterway.
- Request facility operators, especially pipeline operators, to provide personnel during work near their submerged lines.
- When anchoring boats or barges for personnel, cranes and other equipment, ensure that anchors or pilings will not damage submerged utility lines.
- Assess the potential effects of tides and weather on the waterway.
- Review recent hazard surveys for your work location, if available.
- Confirm that all known hazards have been identified with visible markers or surveys, including pipeline crossings, obstructions and shallow or exposed pipelines that are identified by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), where applicable.
- Clearly identify pipeline and utility crossings.
- Conduct a safety meeting with your crew that covers the hazards of working near submerged utilities and waterways.
- Ensure that workers know and understand the signs of a pipeline leak:
- A blowing or hissing sound
- Blowing water or continuous bubbling
- A gaseous, hydrocarbon or other unusual odor
- Liquids bubbling to the surface
- Rainbow sheen on the water
- Require workers to wear life vests and follow OSHA requirements for working near waterways.
- Maintain an accurate roster of all personnel in the event of an incident.
- Prepare and review with your crew an emergency response and evacuation plan in the event you make contact with a submerged utility. Post the appropriate emergency telephone numbers, including those for the State and Federal Hazmat hotlines and USCG National Response Center.
Preventing underwater pipeline and utility damage is everyone’s responsibility. Protecting underground and submerged pipelines and utilities can be as simple as a phone call. Call 811 before you dig! For more information about marine pipeline damage prevention, visit the CAMO website (www.camogroup.org).
George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.