New law increases penalties for digging near pipelines

Digging near major petroleum and natural-gas pipelines without taking proper precautions will be a criminal offense and carry a stiff financial penalty under a new state law that went into effect July 24.

House Bill 1539, adopted by the Legislature and signed by the governor, makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to dig within 35 feet of a transmission pipeline without providing the owner two business days notice through the state’s toll-free One-Call system.

Current law requires all excavators to provide two business days notice before they break ground. Homeowners and farmers only have to provide notice if digging deeper than 12 inches or 1 foot on their property. The existing state law applies to digging anywhere in the state and failure to provide such notice carries a civil penalty of up to $1,000. Under the new law, failure to provide notice when digging near a major pipeline will be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/ or a $1,000 fine. A violator also will be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

Providing sufficient notice allows the owners of the underground facility (a pipeline, a telephone, cable or electricity wire) to mark the ground above where the utilities are buried, making it easier to avoid contact when digging. Notice can be provided by calling a statewide toll-free telephone number (1-800-424-5555) and the marking service is free for homeowners in Washington.

Damage to pipelines from digging is the leading cause of leaks and ruptures to underground systems. Providing sufficient notice prior to digging so that the underground utilities can be marked is the first step toward ensuring your utility services stay connected and the area you’re digging in is safe.

“Our hope is by making such actions a crime, this will help raise awareness of this significant public safety threat,” said Alan Rathbun, director of the state’s pipeline safety program. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kelli Linville and was supported by a group of pipeline companies led by Olympic Pipeline.

The new law focuses on transmission pipelines designed to carry natural gas and hazardous liquids such as petroleum products in large quantities to suppliers and natural-gas providers. In the case of natural gas, these pipelines are under high pressure and can cause significant damage if ruptured even if the contents do not ignite.

While state law already required that people provide notice prior to digging, the new law is designed to draw specific attention to activities in and around these transmission pipeline corridors. Safety regulations require that these corridors be marked at all times, but the markers do not specifically indicate where the pipeline runs underground. Because of the high risk associated with damaging one of these pipelines, it’s now a crime to dig near one without calling the toll-free number (1-800-424-5555) first.

Transmission pipelines carry natural gas and petroleum products through 27 Washington counties, including Adams, Benton, Chelan, Clark, Cowlitz, Franklin, Grays Harbor, Island, King, Kitsap, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lewis, Lincoln, Mason, Pierce, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Spokane, Stevens, Thurston, Walla Walla, Whatcom, Whitman, and Yakima.