• Pipeline Accidents -- Understanding the Texas Underground Facilities Damage Prevention Law
  • June 25, 2010 | Author: Christopher J. Rourk
  • Law Firm: Jackson Walker L.L.P. - Dallas Office
  • In two tragic events in June, underground gas pipelines in Texas were damaged during excavation, resulting in the deaths of excavators and millions of dollars in property damage.  While the facts surrounding what caused these accidents are still being investigated, news accounts have created some confusion about the system used by Texas for the identification of and prevention of damage to such pipelines and other buried utility facilities.  The companies that own and operate such underground facilities and any parties that might use excavation equipment to remove earth in the vicinity of such facilities should be familiar with the systems that are in place to help prevent damage to these underground facilities.

    Texas, like most states, operates a system that both allows and requires excavators (generally those removing 16 inches of soil or more using power equipment) to call a toll-free number at least two working days (48 hours) prior to beginning excavation on property where the excavator has been given permission to excavate. By calling, the excavator can obtain the identification of any companies with underground facilities that are subject to the law in an area where excavation of the soil is planned.  More importantly, the 48-hour "window" gives facility operators the opportunity to mark the location of any such facilities. While no system can protect against "human error" or ensure that every excavator or facility operator complies with the law, the failure to comply with the law can result in civil or criminal liability as well as fines and penalties.

    Unlike most states that rely on a single call center, Texas relies on multiple call centers to provide redundancy.  However, an excavator only needs to call one center, as these call centers are required to cooperate with each other to ensure that excavators and facility operators are provided with timely information and also to assist the excavators with obtaining confirmation from the facility operators that any underground facilities have been identified, or to confirm that no underground facilities are present in an area where excavation will occur.  The wisdom of this approach has been recently confirmed, when one of three call centers (Texas One Call, operated by One Call Systems Inc.) was dropped when it failed to meet strict performance criteria that were established for the call centers by the Texas One Call Board, a non-profit organization established by the Texas legislature. Unlike other states that rely on a single call center, Texas had two redundant and fully operational call centers as backup and was able to quickly ensure that facility operators that were formerly clients of the discontinued call center were transferred to one of the two other redundant call centers.  In most other states, the loss of a single call center would result in months of service disruption.

    Any company that will excavate soil in Texas, such as to install light poles or underground pipelines or cabling, should contact one of the Texas authorized call centers at least 48 hours before excavation, or earlier if there are intervening weekends or holidays.  These call centers can be contacted directly, or by simply dialing 811 from any telephone.  If any problems with call centers or facility operators are encountered, or for more information on the Texas Underground Facilities Damage Prevention Law, contact the Texas One Call Board at www.onecalltexas.com or 512-467-2850.