You have probably seen this sign in your town or neighborhood: “Know what’s below, Call 811 before you dig.”  Did you know that there are more than 200,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines and 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States?  The National Transportation Safety Board says that pipelines are the safest method for transporting these products.  Pipelines have a safety record unparalleled by any other means of transporting energy products.  When these products are transported by other methods, there is a greater risk to the environment and the general public.  About 24 per cent of all the energy used in the U.S. is natural gas, and gas utilities serve more than 60 million customers.  Because Americans consume more than 700 million gallons of petroleum products per day, pipelines are an essential component of our nation’s infrastructure. 

Most pipelines are made of steel, often covered with protective coating, and buried underground.  They are tested and maintained using cleaning devices, diagnostic tools, and other methods to control corrosion.  Interstate pipelines have an integrity management plan; you may contact them directly for more information.  In addition to liquid petroleum and natural gas, pipelines transport a variety of products for our everyday lives, such as oxygen for hospitals.  They may contain other types of gases, chemicals, hazardous liquids, refined products or crude oil, as well as nonflammable products.  Some of these materials could cause environmental damage, if a leak occurred.  Other products may be highly flammable or harmful if inhaled, cause eye or skin irritation and possible difficulty breathing.  Because of these hazards, it is important that you know how to recognize a pipeline leak. 

Using your sense of smell, sight, and sound will help you to be aware of a suspected leak.  If you see a dense fog, mist, or white cloud over a pipeline, bubbling in water and creeks, or blowing dust and discolored vegetation around the pipeline, there may be a leak.   Frozen ground at the pipeline in warm weather is another indicator.  Natural Gas is naturally odorless, so a distinct gaseous odor may be added unless a hydrocarbon smell exists, but usually you will smell a very unpleasant odor.  A whistling, hissing or roaring noise coming from the pipeline is also a sign of a leak. 

Here’s what to do if a leak occurs:

  •          Leave the area immediately.
  •          From a safe location, call 911 and the pipeline company, if possible.
  •          Move upwind from the suspected leak.
  •          Warn others to stay away.
  •          Assist with traffic, medical help, evacuation, or shelter.
  •         Keep curious onlookers away.

Here’s what NOT to do if a leak occurs:

  •          Do not touch, breathe, or make contact with leaking liquids or gas.  Stay upwind if possible.
  •          Do not light a match, start an engine, use a cell phone, turn on or off any type of electrical switch such as a  garage door opener, or do anything that may create static or a spark.
  •          Do not attempt to extinguish any pipeline fire that may start.
  •          Do not drive into a leak or vapor cloud area.  Automobile engines may ignite the vapors.
  •          Do not attempt to operate valves. 

Most pipelines are monitored 24 /7 per week to ensure the integrity and security of these lines.  Sophisticated computers, alarms, meters, and satellite technology may be used to control and monitor pipeline systems.  They are designed to detect changes in pressure and flow and will be activated if a leak is detected.  Some lines contain automatic shut-off valves that will isolate a leak.   Pipeline markers are placed for your safety, to show the approximate location of the lines and name the companies that operate them. They indicate the material transported in the line, the name of the operator, and a phone number where the company can be reached in the event of an emergency.  It is a federal crime for any person to willfully deface, damage, remove or destroy any pipeline sign or right-of-way marker. 

Call 811 before you dig.  Whether you are starting a project, landscaping, building fences or other projects, pipelines have a right of way that must be kept free from structures and other obstructions to provide access to the pipeline for maintenance, as well as in the event of an emergency.  First, call the pipeline company in order for their personnel to mark the pipeline or stake the rights-of-way and explain the company’s construction and easement requirements to you. 

One last thing: the Nation’s Infrastructures, including pipelines, are a matter of National Security.  If you witness a suspicious activity on pipeline rights-of-way, please report it to the pipeline company.  Threat advisories may be found at the Department of Homeland Security’s website, Source:  Texas Excavation Safety System