Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recently signed Senate Bill 242 into law, a legislative initiative designed to make significant changes to Pennsylvania’s “One Call System,” a warning system for excavators that helps them avoid hitting buried pipelines and other underground infrastructure during operations.
The One Call System requires all facility owners to document the location of certain underground lines and other infrastructure and provides a single telephone number for designers or excavators to call prior to excavation, demolition, or other projects that pose a risk of hitting those lines. Through the One Call System, owners of facilities that may be affected by projects are notified prior to the commencement of operations, enabling them to go to the site to mark the location of their facilities as required by the statute.
The program is intended to avoid accidents that may cause outages, property damage, or personal injury/death due to hitting an underground utility line and imposes penalties for violations of the obligations under the statute. Nevertheless, thousands of utility line hits occur each year in Pennsylvania.
To reduce those incidents, Senate Bill 242 makes a number of significant changes to the obligations of excavators, facility owners, and state agencies administering the law. Significantly, the amendments transfer enforcement responsibilities from the Department of Labor and Industry to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC). The legislation creates a “Damage Prevention Committee” to review alleged violations of the act and make informal determinations that can lead to significant administrative penalties. If an alleged violator contests the informal determination, the PUC staff decides whether to issue a formal complaint, which will be heard by the PUC. If the PUC finds a violation of the act, it can impose an administrative penalty of up to $2,500 per violation, but if the violation results in injury, death, or property damage of at least $25,000, the PUC may impose an administrative penalty of up to $50,000. In addition, the amendments change the existing act by:
Requiring a project to start between three and 10 business days following notification to the One Call System.
Requiring facility owners to maintain existing records of main lines abandoned on or after the effective date of the amendments.
Requiring facility owners to report alleged violations of the act where the cost to repair the damage is $2,500 or more (but even less expensive violations must be reported if the same person damages the facility owner’s lines two or more times within a six-month period).
Permitting the One Call System to levy an annual fee for its service, to be paid by excavators, engineers, and others who request information from the system.
Permitting the PUC to include the cost of its enforcement activities in its budget, which is ultimately funded by utility ratepayers.
Finally, the definition of “lines” that are subject to the act now includes unconventional oil and gas well production and gathering lines or facilities, meaning that a “facility owner” includes owners and operators of these lines (although many unconventional well operators voluntarily submitted to One Call before the legislation passed). However, the act maintains an exemption for certain small lines connected to low-yielding oil and gas wells (stripper wells).
Given the transfer of authority from Labor and Industry to the PUC and the significant penalties authorized by the act, stakeholders such as land developers, construction companies, architects, engineers, oil and gas well operators, and other facility owners or excavators that have obligations under the act should take steps to understand the amendments to assure compliance and familiarize themselves with the procedures in the PUC in the event there is a need to defend notices of alleged violations.