Line riders marking pipelines near proposed excavations should be certified and monitored by a third-party government agency, Mark Breslin testified at a California State Senate committee June 10. Hazards must be better highlighted on construction drawings, more accurate technology used to locate buried pipelines and pipeline companies must be required to respond more quickly, said the executive director of San Ramon-based Engineering and Utility Contractors Association (EUCA). “There needs to be a consequence for not being responsive. The culture of marginal compliance by some owners of equipment has to stop.”

The gas pipeline explosion in Walnut Creek last November that killed five construction workers after a backhoe hit a buried pipeline was not an isolated occurrence, Breslin told the Senate committee hearing called by Senator Tom Torlakson to explore ways to avert similar disasters. “The symptoms leading up to that incident take place in the construction field routinely,” he says.

According to a California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) investigation that slapped the pipeline owner, Houston-based Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, with the maximum $140,000 fine, what happened was a Livermore, Calif.-based Mountain Cascade Inc., equipment operator working on a 72-in.-dia water supply line hit a mismarked 10-in. petroleum line carrying gasoline pressurized at 974 psi. The fuel shot down the trench, soaking the four welders whose sparks caused the fuel to ignite in a wall of flame.

The report shows that a KMP line rider was on site the day before the accident and plans produced by the Fountain Valley office of Phoenix-based Carollo Engineers PC showed a bend in the line along with a note that reads, “Contractor shall verify location of petroleum lines prior to any construction.” But no paint or flag markings were present. Mountain Cascade, Carollo Engineers and East Bay Municipal Utility District were also fined smaller amounts.

The California Fire Marshall’s Office report on whether the accident violated state or federal pipeline operating laws will be released in the next few weeks, according to Chief of Pipeline Safety Nancy Wolfe. That could result in a fine as high as $500,000 to the pipeline operator and will be forwarded to the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office for possible civil or criminal charges.

Robert Kipp, president of the Common Ground Alliance, an Alexandria, Va.-based association of excavators and locators, advocates better enforcement of existing regulations. “If the owner-operator knows he will be fined every time there is a violation then he will make sure qualified people are hired and using the best technology,” Kipp says.

EUCA will be part of a working group charged with coming up with recommendations for how safety around pipelines can be improved either through regulatory or legislative changes. “They will be throwing out all possible ideas,” says Cal/OSHA representative Renée Bacchini.

Robert Oaks, a representative for Senator Torlakson, whose district includes Walnut Creek, says the senator pledges to carry legislation if the working group decides that is the most efficient way to address the lingering symptoms in the field.