Proposed state bill would strengthen utility line safety

State Rep. Matthew E. Baker, R-Wellsboro, has introduced legislation to strengthen regulations and enhance safety with regard to underground utility lines.

The lawmaker, whose district lies within one of the state’s heaviest natural gas producing areas, noted that thousands of lines are hit during excavations each year in Pennsylvania.

“These aren’t just gas lines,” he said “These are utility lines.”

All too often, the line hits occur because procedures are not followed under the state’s One Call Law, Baker said.

Baker said he was surprised to learn that, under present law, entities such as the state Department of Transportation, operators of production and gathering lines, and municipalities are exempt from aspects of the law.

The lawmaker, whose district includes Tioga County, said his bill seeks to eliminate the exemptions and hold those accountable who violate the law.

Under the law, homeowners and contractors are required to contact the state’s One Call by dialing 811 at least three business days prior to beginning any excavation.

Baker’s bill also would transfer regulation of underground lines from the Department of Labor to the Public Utility Commission.

“As chairman of the House Health Committee, I am committed to ensuring the health and safety of Pennsylvania citizens, and this legislation is an extension of that commitment,” Baker said. “Simply put, at the end of the day, Pennsylvania needs to do a better job of managing, mapping and enforcing its One Call system, and I think House Bill 1067 will achieve that goal.”

Baker said he’s hopeful the bill soon will come to a vote in the House.

The House Consumer Affairs Committee recently held a second public hearing on the bill.

Various interest groups back its passage, Baker said.

Anadarko Petroleum Co. spokeswoman Mary B. Wolf said her company as yet has taken no position on the legislation.

Baker said he has no idea how many gas lines have been hit during excavations.

However, state One Call officials released the following natural gas line hit totals for each of the past six years:

2008: 1,441.

2009: 1,220

2010: 1,257

2011: 1,290

2012: 1,073

2013: 953 (through Oct. 31)

Overall, hits of all utility lines in the past six years have decreased from a high of 8,039 in 2008 to 5,021 so far this year, according to figures.

Bill Kiger, president and executive director of the One Call System, said gathering lines of natural gas operations are exempt from reporting and from much of the pipeline safety regulations.

“PHMSA is underfunded and cannot with their current staff update the regulations and perform the normal pipeline inspections they do on regulated gas pipelines,” he said.

“There are in excess of 384,000 traditional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. Marcellus well owners who operate in much the same area have a very big job finding these lines and, since they have had exemptions under state and federal law for some time now, only those that serve customers from those lines would be required to be members under the current Underground Utility Line Protection Law.

“They were required under the original law to file with each County Recorder of Deeds, but only a few complied. There are more than 100,000 miles of gathering lines in Pennsylvania. Only a small fraction have a damage prevention program in place or have joined PA One Call to protect their lines.”

He noted that Bakers’s bill eliminates exemptions under state law.

State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, said he hasn’t made up his mind about the bill.

“But it sounds like there are lot of things in the bill that are positive,” he said. “It seems like there may be some logical reasons for it. It’s probably good to make sure we are on top of these things before there is an incident.”

State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it properly removes the exemptions that have existed under the One Call Law.

“It just needs updated. I think switching to the PUC makes sense,” he said.

Everett said One Call, despite its flaws, has for the most part been successful with alerting officials about excavations around utility lines.