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Preventing pipeline incidents caused by excavation activities

Any person who does excavation work should click or call before digging

Excavation (or digging) work can cause pipeline incidents that can lead to tragic consequences.

Indeed, this type of incident is particularly dangerous because of the safety risks involved given the location of excavation — usually near cities or inhabited rural areas — and the proximity of the workers to the pipeline when the events occur.

In Canada, seven people died in an explosion in Toronto, Ontario, in April 2003 after construction workers hit a gas line that was not properly identified. The line was regulated by the province.

The company was fined for violating the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Technical Standards and Safety Act.

Federally, the Pipeline Crossing Regulations, which have become the Damage Prevention Regulations, came about as a result of a fatal incident in the municipality of Durham, Ontario, in October 1985.

The event occurred when a worker conducting construction work on a farm accidently hit a gas line with a plow.

The NEB’s incident investigation report explains the event: “The escaping gas ignited resulting in an explosion and a fire which burned for approximately four hours. The operator of the plow died in the explosion and ensuing fire; three of his employees were burned but recovered, and one other person, a [company] employee, was slightly injured.”

The incident brought to light a range of issues, which led the NEB to strengthen its regulatory oversight of damage prevention activities.


NEB role in damage prevention

Preventing damage to pipelines is a shared responsibility.

Pipeline companies are required to make sure people know how to safely conduct activities like ground disturbance and construction near pipelines.

People planning activities that involve digging like planting a tree, a home improvement job or installing a fence, must call or click before they dig, to safely identify buried utility lines — including pipelines, but also electricity lines and fiber optic cables.

As a federal regulator of international and interprovincial pipelines, the National Energy Board promotes safe work practices around pipelines. We do this through regulation and by monitoring and enforcing compliance with those regulations.

We raise public awareness about safety by providing information and encouraging co-operation, safety education, and compliance with requirements. And we are the federal regulatory champion for the Canadian Common Ground Alliance.

“As part of our activities we conduct outreach with different groups throughout the year,” shares Patrick Curti, NEB inspector.

“Because pipelines are buried, they can be at risk for accidental damage from nearby ground disturbance or construction activity. The good news, is that this type of damage can be prevented” adds Patrick.

More specifically, pipeline companies must:

  • Inform municipalities about the location of the pipelines.

  • Educate stakeholders about how to make a locate request and get information to dig safely in the vicinity of pipelines.

  • Regularly hold damage prevention public awareness activities to remind people about the presence of their infrastructure and necessary precautions.

Those who dig such as builders, farmers and municipalities must:

  • Call or click before they dig to find out from the pipeline companies about the lines’ location, and how to conduct their activities safely with regards to the pipeline, before undertaking any excavation work.

  • Advise the companies to which they issue digging permits or contracts of the requirement to contact their one-call centre, which will notify all of the buried infrastructure owners registered with them of your intent to excavate. The pipeline company and other infrastructure owners will give you the information that you need to conduct your project safely.

  • Inform the pipeline companies of any contact with the pipeline.

Every year, Patrick’s team meets with those who dig in order to make them aware of the risks and requirements for safe ground disturbance practices.

“We meet with farmers, landscapers, construction workers and municipal staff to educate them on the importance of understanding how to prevent these incidents and ensuring they know proper digging protocols,” he says.

“We want to remind people that the risks of incidents are real, but that it’s possible to eliminate them by following a few simple rules.”

The Click Before You Dig website act as a one-stop shop. Request can be done 24/7 and one can attach maps and pictures of their project site.


Unauthorized activities

The key data sets monitored by NEB inspectors are unauthorized activities conducted on the pipeline right of way and in the prescribed area, which is the area of land extending 30 metres on each side of the pipeline.

The NEB categorizes unauthorized activities into three types:

  • Ground disturbance (e.g., excavation, construction or tree planting)

  • Encroachments

  • Vehicle crossing
“We monitor these reported activities because they provide our team with insight into the communities’ understanding, or lack of, of the rules that should be followed when working near pipelines,” shares Marie-Eve Latour, NEB inspector.

“We keep statistics about what happened, who was involved and where unauthorized activities have occurred.”

The reports come from the pipeline operators who must conduct regular surveillance activities of the right of ways and are required to report all unauthorized activities.

The data helps the NEB focus its outreach efforts, and also measure the effectiveness of its approach.

Between 2014 and 2017, there has been significant increase of authorized activities from 150 to 352.

When questioned about the increase, Latour explains that the introduction of the Online Event Reporting System in 2015 made it easier for pipeline companies to report unauthorized activities, as they are required to by the regulations.

“Updated regulations in June 2016 made some changes as to what is reportable and we saw an increase in the number of unauthorized activities being reported,” she says.

“Of the three categories of unauthorized activities, ground disturbance have the greatest potential for damaging the pipe and causing harm, and are considered to be near misses.”

In fact in the vast majority of cases, nothing actually happens to the pipelines.

However, any incident or contact with a pipe, as minor as it is, must be reported to the pipeline company.

This is because even a simple scratch can lead to corrosion and increase the risk of a rupture.

Figure 1: Unauthorized activities by type reported near federally-regulated pipelines



Explore incident data in Canada

Interested in learning more about pipeline incidents in Canada?

The NEB has created a data visualization tool that allows users to explore 10 years of pipeline incident data and draw their own conclusions about its performance as a safety regulator.

With a few clicks, it is possible to examine the relationships between 13 variables such as incident type, what and why the incident occurred, the substance involved, as well as the company responsible.

Katherine L Murphy, who leads data visualization at the NEB, says it is part of the organization’s efforts to make data more accessible.

“Our data sets have been available to the public in Excel and other formats for a number of years,” shared Katherine.

“But we noticed that few were accessing the information, so we decided to look at the potential of visualization tools to help users more easily analyze large and complex data sets, and look for trends and patterns.”

In addition to the interactive incident data visualization tool, the NEB has also created a similar tool to help Canadians explore energy production and consumption trends and forecast into the future, and is working with more datasets, with plans to launch a tool on import and export of energy products in the near future.

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