Know What's Below - Hidden Underground Hazards Can Strike Back

Litigation, North America

Ground disturbance and excavation are sure ways to uncover hidden underground hazards; however, it is far safer to establish the location of buried installations prior to opening an excavation. After an excavation trencher struck an underground natural gas pipeline, the injured heavy equipment operator claimed the buried pipeline had not been properly identified and marked. Baker & O'Brien reported on responsibilities for marking the pipeline, and which party had the regulatory compliance responsibility for safe execution of the work.

An owner of midstream oilfield assets hired a contractor to construct a six-mile long flexible 12" polyethylene pipeline to carry produced water to a disposal well. The construction contractor subcontracted an excavation company to dig the five foot deep trench where the fabricated pipeline would be placed and buried. Near the end of the Project, an excavation trencher struck a natural gas pipeline buried beneath the surface. The ensuing gas release quickly found a source of ignition, resulting in a flash fire that engulfed the excavator operator, who sustained non-fatal burns.

There is an established regulatory process to physically identify underground hazards associated with buried utility services and pipelines that may contain hazardous substances. A national one-call phone number or internet web service may be used to facilitate the location and identification of buried pipelines. "Call before you dig" is the system that is locally accessed by dialing 811.

Baker & O'Brien was engaged to determine jurisdictional authority between federal/state agencies including the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Railroad Commission of Texas. After determining the applicable regulations, Baker & O'Brien defined the responsible parties' work activities associated with the incident. The parties included the owner of the pipeline under construction, the general contractor, the subcontractor excavation company, and the natural gas pipeline owner.

Our assessment included: (i) identifying who was responsible for the marking of known buried pipelines; (ii) determining whether the natural gas pipeline was adequately marked; and (iii) who had the regulatory compliance responsibility for the safe execution of the work. Baker & O'Brien developed a report with opinions on each of these aspects, which assisted in successful settlement negotiations.

Melvin M. Sinquefield

Senior Consultant

Oil & Gas Production
Accident / Incident Investigation / Litigation / Expert Witness Testimony / OSHA-related / Pipeline / Safety
North America