This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features first-time guest Sarah Magruder Lyle, the President and CEO of the Common Ground Alliance, discussing damage prevention in pipeline operations.
In this episode, you will learn about the role of Common Ground Alliance bringing together various stakeholders to support pipeline safety, the role of 811 advancing pipeline awareness and prevention efforts across the U.S., the next steps to increase safety coordination efforts to achieve positive safety outcomes, and how pipeliners play a critical role providing contractors with the appropriate tools and data.
Common Ground Alliance: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Sarah K. Magruder Lyle is President & CEO of the Common Ground Alliance (CGA). Connect on LinkedIn.
- Common Ground Alliance (CGA) is a stakeholder-run organization dedicated to preventing damage to underground utility infrastructure and protecting those who live and work near these important assets through the shared responsibility of our stakeholders.
- U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is a cabinet-level department of the United States Government concerned with the United States’ policies regarding energy and safety in handling nuclear material.
- NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is a U.S. government agency responsible for the safe transportation through Aviation, Highway, Marine, Railroad, and Pipeline. The entity investigates incidents and accidents involving transportation and also makes recommendations for safety improvements.
- Read the 2019-2020 NTSB “Most Wanted List” for safety improvements, including recommendations that affect the pipeline industry.
- Damage Prevention is a concerted effort to maintain public safety through safe digging and excavation activity that is supported by data, resources, and shared information.
- API has made available an Excavation Damage Prevention (EDP) toolbox, which is a collection of damage prevention lessons learned and best practices for pipeline operations.
- 811 (Call Before You Dig) is the federally designated call-before-you-dig phone number, designed to make the notification step of the safe excavation process as easy as possible. A person is required to call the 811 number 48-to-72 hours before beginning any excavation or digging projects to allow time for locators to mark the approximate location of any buried infrastructure before excavation begins. Prior to the implementation of 811, people who dug had to know one call center’s 800 numbers, or notify utilities individually.
- TEA-21 Act was enacted in June 1998 to authorize Federal surface transportation programs for highways, highway safety, and transit. Included was a recommendation to introduce a designated 811 one-call phone number to support public safety.
- CGA’s Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) is a data repository that collects critical information about underground damage and near-miss reports. DIRT data is used to produce targeted recommendations to damage prevention stakeholders about how to best protect buried facilities.
- The CGA Next Practices Initiative, announced in May 2020, focuses on driving innovative solutions to solve challenges that the damage prevention industry faces. [Read the Press Release]
- The CGA Next Practices Advisory Group has been charged with overseeing progress in the Next Practice Initiative. The group members represent stakeholders across the damage prevention industry. Their mission is to consolidate the most critical damage prevention challenges into a clear call-to-action for the damage prevention industry. The advisory group will establish a process to communicate information to the industry and to collect responses, information, and data to support Next Practices.
Common Ground Alliance: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 160, sponsored by EnerSys Corporation, providers of POEMS, the Pipeline Operations Excellence Management System, compliance and operations software for the pipeline control center, recently releasing ComplyMgr software to streamline audit readiness. Find out more about POEMS at enersyscorp.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. Now your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show that appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Will Herbold with Meritage Midstream. Congratulations, Will, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize, stick around to the end of the episode.
This week, we are very fortunate to have Sarah Magruder Lyle from the Common Ground Alliance join us to talk about damage prevention. Sarah, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Sarah Magruder Lyle: Thanks so much, Russel, for having me. I appreciate it.
Russel: Before we dive in, maybe you could tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into pipelining.
Sarah: Absolutely. I’ve been in the energy industry, specifically oil and gas, for the better part of my professional career. Back in the day, I was with the Department of Energy. Certainly, pipelines were a major focus there.
After I left the Department of Energy, I have worked upstream, downstream, midstream, mostly on the association side representing oil and gas companies from the time we were still working to import natural gas because we were thought we were going to run out, to the times that we were going to start exporting oil and gas because we had an abundance of it due to fracking.
I’m certainly familiar with the challenges and opportunities of moving product by pipeline. Certainly, safety is a priority. When the unique opportunity came along to be involved with the Common Ground Alliance, I thought it was great, and here we are.
Russel: That’s a great tee-up because that’s what I asked you to come on and talk about. Maybe tell us, what is the Common Ground Alliance? Why should a pipeliner care?
Sarah: Back in the late ’90s, pipeline incidents, particularly because of dig-ins, were a huge problem. At one point, the issue was actually on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. That is really where the idea for best practices came around.
In 1998, DOT conducted a nationwide study of best practices. The following year, the initial Best Practices was published with 132 best practices developed by consensus from 160 stakeholders. That is certainly a large lift and something to be recognized.
With that, that group decided that they really wanted to keep that work going, that Best Practices shouldn’t live in a vacuum. In 2000, the Common Ground Alliance was established.
Russel: What’s the mission of the Common Ground Alliance?
Sarah: Today, we’ve come from focusing on best practices to…there’s a philosophy. That is the core principle of the Common Ground Alliance, which is bringing all damage prevention stakeholders together and looking at the damage prevention process as a shared responsibility. Certainly, one of the biggest achievements of Common Ground Alliance was really pushing out the 811 message.
After the Common Ground Alliance was established, the TEA-21 Act actually said, “We need to have a number. We need to have a one-call number.” The FCC designated 811 as the universal number in 2005.
Then, CGA became the instrument to do the public awareness for the 811 campaign in 2007. Since then, damages have dropped significantly, just with the establishment of a one-call center and the one-call number.
Beyond that, the CGA is not only looking just at educating about the importance of calling before you dig but the entire damage prevention process. We’re dedicated to preventing damage to all underground utility infrastructure. There’s over 22 million miles of infrastructure in this country.
It’s a lot. It’s a couple of football fields for every man, woman, and child in this country. Certainly, as fiber has taken off, I’m sure those numbers are continuing to grow exponentially.
Russel: At least in my part of the country, pretty much all new construction, all the utilities are put underground. Electric, phone, Internet, gas, it’s all underground, where historically, gas and water was underground. Everything else was above ground.
It makes the neighborhood prettier. It makes the neighborhood more survivable from storms and such, but it also creates a different kind of problem because unseen is forgotten for a lot of people.
Sarah: Absolutely, especially for the general public who doesn’t recognize how all those things get to your house. What’s unique about CGA is we represent all of those utilities and all of those stakeholder groups.
Russel: That’s probably what a lot of people in the pipeline world don’t understand about 811, is 811 is a lot broader than just pipeline. It’s everything that is underground infrastructure, which is many things.
Particularly, if I were going to put an irrigation system in my yard, and I filed an 811 as I should if I were going to do that, I’d have probably five different entities come by my house to mark lines.
Sarah: That’s right. It’s important. While the pipeline is certainly what we’re talking about here, it may not be a contractor from a pipeline that hits their line.
With the increase in telecommunications and other utilities going into the ground, we have to make those groups aware, too, of how important it is to follow the process because they could endanger themselves, the community. It goes way beyond just the actual asset.
Russel: I started my career right out of college in construction. I remember very well doing a project where we were putting in some buried tanks. The effort required to figure out who needed to be contacted much less figure out how to contact them and get them out to do what you needed them to do was a pretty high bar.
811 has been transformational from that standpoint because you call one number, and all of their processes are in place to know who they need to contact to get things marked.
Sarah: We see states that have higher participation in 811 that have less exemptions. Spend more on awareness; have less damage. And we’ve looked at that. The idea of 811 is not just calling anymore. In the industry, 811 encompasses the entire process, not just the call but everything that goes with that. That’s what our Best Practices are.
Our Best Practices are what do you do from the time you get there, from the time you call until…If you have to report an incident, what you have to do afterward. Those practices are so important because they are developed by consensus. That means everybody has to agree, and that’s why people look to them as the standard in the damage prevention industry.
Russel: Talk to me a little bit, Sarah, if you would. Who are the stakeholders when you start talking about damage prevention? I think one of the things in our conversations leading up to this podcast was that I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable, but even as I’m talking to you, I really don’t understand how broad and complex it is.
Sarah: It is quite complex. If you think about it, you have the one-call centers, gas transmission, gas distribution, oil pipelines, telecom, electric, public works — that’s one that we often forget about — our water, sewer, those basic needs, locators, excavators, road builders. That’s really the group that we call our core group. They’re the ones that are doing something in the process. They’re calling. They’re digging. They’re locating. They own assets.
Then, we have those that are also very important still to the process but not necessarily on-site: state regulators, engineering, equipment manufacturers, insurance, emergency services, and railroad.
Emergency services is a great example. While they’re not in the initial damage prevention process, we need them because if something does happen, we have to be in tune with what information they need to deal with an emergency. They need to be in tune with how the process works.
Russel: It sounds easy if you say it fast. [laughs]
Sarah: That’s right. It’s very complicated.
Russel: This group of stakeholders has competing needs and competing risks. This is an oversimplification, for sure. I think about an excavator. Their thing is they want to get the bucket in the dirt and get on to the next job. That’s how they make their money.
All these other things could slow them down, whereas for the gas utility, they want to make sure the bucket doesn’t hit their pipe. [laughs] Those two things are somewhat in competition, other than nobody wants an incident.
Sarah: One of the things that I’ve seen — I have been with the Common Ground Alliance almost four years — there has certainly been a change in perspective and attitude over the past several years about how we look at these issues. If you look at the most recent DIRT data, we’re going in the wrong direction, frankly.
Russel: Tell me, what is the DIRT data?
Sarah: Thank you, Russel. The Damage Information Reporting Tool is where we collect data about incidents and near misses, and then we take a look at that. That helps inform the different analyses we do, research we do, educational efforts that we pursue.
We encourage all stakeholders to input information into the Damage Information Reporting Tool. We put that report out annually and take a look at what our estimated damages are and where they’re going.
Now, we do equalize those, if you will, because some can say, “Well, if more people report, the number’s higher,” but what we do is we look at that through various different lenses. One is the number of transmissions. If you make a call into the one-call center, how many transmissions out do they make to the different utilities? That’s one way.
The other way to do it is estimated damages per 1,000 transmissions. Another way that we look at it is estimated damages per million dollars of construction spending. Even if you look at that, if you look at how much we’re spending versus the damages, we are going in the wrong direction. We have been for several years now.
That’s been a real key point that our stakeholders have really been looking at over the past couple years. The challenge there is this, and this is something that we’ve really been advocating. We are a damage prevention industry.
If the excavator only looks at themselves as the excavator in the process, and the facility owner only looks at themselves as facility owner, and the locator only looks at himself as the locator, we’re never going to fix these problems because they are inextricably intertwined with each other.
Russel: I want to ask you to unpack something for me. You mentioned that when the standards first started coming out, you saw a decrease in damage. Recently, given the DIRT tool, you’re starting to see an increase. What’s changing?
Sarah: 811 was such a pivotal point. Just what you said earlier, the idea of being able to call one number and get this done dramatically changed the environment in which damage prevention was housed in, so there is a big change there. Once 811 was being used, damages went down significantly about 50 percent.
Now, what’s happened is — and this is what we’ve been talking about — even with Best Practices, even with educating about 811 (the low-hanging fruit) and Best Practices, we’ve looked at that. Now, we’re getting into the hard stuff, the very difficult part that where you stand depends on where you sit.
Russel: That is so on-point. I think, Sarah, with any kind of safety program, the first thing you get is the low-hanging fruit, and then it gets hard. It’s one thing to get that first order of magnitude improvement, but then every order of magnitude you get after that gets an order of magnitude more difficult to achieve.
What are some of the initiatives that Common Ground is undertaking to address this issue?
Sarah: Several things. One thing that we’ve done on the technology side is enhanced the DIRT data so that you can go to the website. You can go to commongroundalliance.com and go to the DIRT website. There’s a dashboard there, and you can slice and dice the data in various ways.
For instance, one of the most interesting facts — I think it always shows up in the DIRT Report, and I double-checked it before we started recording to make sure it was still accurate — is the number one cause of a dig-in is from a backhoe. Number two is a hand tool — and number two is the one we’re supposed to be using when we’re being careful. Clearly, there are some challenges there.
The next thing we’ve done is the board and the membership at large is really starting to embrace the idea that we have to look at this as an industry, not just as your own piece of the puzzle. If we continue to silo this, which is what we’ve been doing, we cannot expect to have a different outcome.
We have to look at this in total. There are three big initiatives that we’ve taken on over the past couple years. One is looking at each group and saying, “Okay, what are the challenges within your specific stakeholder group that we can address?”
We started a series of white papers last year. We looked at excavators first, and what we did is tried to give them an opportunity to talk about the challenges they were facing in the industry and what are the opportunities that we have to really help inform them and provide them with opportunities for more effective outreach.
We had four clear takeaways from that. What we were trying to do is give concrete actions, continuing increasing awareness of 811 through strategic marketing and education campaigns. We have to acknowledge the realities of the job site when we’re communicating best practices to excavators.
Developing an integrated communication plan that reaches all types of excavators and making damage prevention training more easily accessible, relevant, and actionable.
Now, I want to point out on a couple of those that acknowledging the realities of the job site is really important. The Best Practices are drafted under the best of circumstances, but that’s not what’s happening on the job site, either.
When we did this research, those smaller contractors who were perhaps the sub of a sub, they said, “Well, we take our direction from the general contractor on-site,” and so they’re looking to them for what the right practices are on site. We have to think about those things. That’s not a Best Practice, but the general contractor needs to be aware. Everybody’s looking at them on-site.
Russel: They’re the ones that have to set the standard and hold the standard.
Sarah: For instance, even with the 811 awareness, over 80 percent of excavators know that it exists, which is a decent number but not a great number when you’re talking about professional contractors. That number decreases when you ask them, “How many actually use it?” That’s not a good thing. It’s not just about awareness. It’s about awareness and use.
We looked at the excavators in December. We released the locator white paper, which was similar — same idea. What is it in the locating industry that we really need to focus on to change the direction here?
There are some interesting pieces there. What motivates the locator to complete their locates accurately and on time as part of the process? What can we do to help them there? It’s interesting. White lining, better maps, those are the kinds of things that they pointed out.
What you’re starting to see is you’re starting to see this picture of what each of those pieces mean and how they work together because it’s not just about what the excavator does or the locator does. Whatever the locator does, it affects the excavator, However, the…
Russel: The locate is only as good as the records that the locator has to work with.
Sarah: That’s right. That is exactly right.
Russel: When you start pulling this back, it gets complex. I’m looking at the information that you had provided me, and I’m looking at the root cause analysis pie chart that you have. It’s really interesting. The breakout of the issues, it’s approximately a third excavation, a third locating, and nobody actually did locate. It’s like, “Okay, well, we’re pretty equally sharing the problem.”
Sarah: There is a recognition that we all have to look at each other together. We can’t just point fingers because we’re not making progress. Something else that is going to be a real opportunity for the damage prevention industry is, as we’ve been having these discussions, we can’t just keep doing what we’re doing and expect a different result.
We have established a Next Practices Initiative, which includes leaders from all the stakeholder groups. We’ve been having a frank discussion about, how do we move forward? What’s next in damage prevention? How are we going to use industry data surveys, member feedback? How are we going to use those things to address the most challenging issues facing the industry?
We’ve kicked that off this year. We have a Next Practices Advisory Group. That’s been great. What we’re doing right now is we are evaluating the variety of data that we have gotten to highlight, what are those top critical challenges we need to look at? What types of innovation? What types of technology? What kinds of processes are out there that people are using to try to solve these problems?
Best Practices looks at, what is happening right now that is considered the Best Practice on-site? Next Practices is, what are the opportunities to make changes as we move forward? What sort of innovations and technologies are going to help us take damage prevention to the next level?
Russel: I think it’s interesting when you start talking about these things. Myself, being a geek, I know what some of the technologies that are available. I know what they have as opportunities in terms of what they could potentially do to improve or get an extra order of magnitude performance.
Those technologies have to cut across multiple companies. I’ve got to line up the data that’s kept by the folks that have the underground infrastructure, the tools that the locators are using, and the tools that the excavators are using to do their excavations, so all that’s got to come together.
The toughest technology challenges are when you try to pull a technology together across a bunch of stakeholders.
Sarah: You touched on one of the biggest challenges that we’re facing, which is mapping. If you look at the world we live in and how technology savvy we are, we can walk around with some sort of mapping and figure out exactly where we are, but we can’t do that yet with our underground…
Infrastructure is a challenge. Right off the bat, locators are at a disadvantage, and frankly, so are the excavators. There’s a variety of things that are a challenge like white lining and maps. Another big issue that we’ve had, at least from the perspective of some of our stakeholders, is abandoned lines.
Russel: Oh, yeah. [laughs] Oh, yeah. Anybody who’s done any kind of construction that requires turning dirt knows that when you start turning dirt, you find things. Even when you talk about the people who are operating infrastructure, there’s tons of things that are underground that predate anybody keeping records of what’s underground.
Sarah: The number of facility owners to think abandoned lines is an issue is significantly lower than the excavator and locator that thinks it is. The problem with that — and this is really one of the issues that we said we have to look at this globally — which is you could have a locator and an excavator doing everything right by the book. The locate could be right. If the abandoned line and the live line are within 18 inches of each other within that tolerance zone, and the excavator potholes, the excavator gets a visual on what he thinks is the live line because he doesn’t know the abandoned one is there, you’re still going to have an incident even though they’ve done everything they could.
We have to look at how from the very beginning of the process, starting with the facility operator, what they do, what they have in their contract, how they set this up affects every other piece of the damage prevention puzzle.
Russel: What would you want pipeliners to remember about this conversation? What do you think’s the key takeaway for a pipeliner related to all of this?
Sarah: For pipeliners, if you’re hiring a locator and an excavator to do a job for you, give them the tools they need to do the job the best way they can. A lot of this is maybe it’s not just, but it’s also communication, the opportunity to ask questions. Making sure that the way you have your contract set up is by quality, not necessarily just by quantity.
We have to make sure that we are empowering people to make the right decisions and make the best decisions they can, but that’s only based on the information they have.
Russel: I want to try and re-state that, Sarah. This is me processing what you’re saying and trying to make sure I understand it. Said a different way, what the pipeliner needs to know about this area of damage prevention is, “I got to equip my excavators to be successful, and I want to measure success as a successful dig,” meaning it’s done without damage.
“We accomplish the objectives we set out to accomplish.” That requires some pretty close and careful coordination, particularly with the boots on the ground.
Sarah: There’s been this discussion about…We all have to deal with the l-word of liability. Where does that liability lie? How do you minimize the liability? We often focus so much on the backend, what the damage would cost, how much more it would cost to do whatever with the locator or excavator.
What we’re really starting to look at is, if we just do a little bit more on the front end, how much are we going to save on the back end? When there is a dig-in, particularly in natural gas or oil or if — God forbid — there’s an explosion, that incident affects the entire industry, not just the company that experienced it.
We have to start thinking more about how those impacts affect the industry long-term. Are we really quantifying that financially? We have to start looking at this a little bit differently.
Russel: I think the point you’re making, Sarah, applies to a lot more than just damage prevention, the whole framework in the industry around safety and safety outcomes. Operating outcomes, for that matter, need to be re-thought.
One of the things about the pipeline business is it’s very technical. In any one of the disciplines you’re working in, you have to develop a lot of very vertical technical expertise. That tends to cause things to silo.
One of the things we’re going to have to do better is communicate better. That doesn’t just mean talk on the phone or talk in person or email back and forth. It’s like, “How do we get really, really crisp and clear in communicating what’s needed and how it needs to be done and the outcome we’re looking for and such?”
That requires standards. That requires education. It also requires management systems. I think one of the things that’s interesting to me in the information you provided, particularly around the DIRT tool, is just how much data is in there. You guys are looking at over half a million entries a year.
I wonder. Do you have any sense of what percentage of the digs that should be represented does that represent, if you’re getting 100 percent of all the digs?
Sarah: Not enough.
Sarah: We use that number. It is statistically significant. We can use that to draw these conclusions, but one of the big challenges that we had and still have and are continuing to address is excavators in particular always felt like they got blamed for everything. It was always their fault.
However, they were not putting in nearly as much information into DIRT as other stakeholder groups. If you’re not putting the data in, then the conclusions are only as good as what the data is. The more data we have from all stakeholder groups, the better off we are. We can refine our educational efforts. We can refine the analysis that we need to be looking at, additional data we may be needing to look at.
This year, in the DIRT Report, we did a societal cost analysis. The numbers are tremendous. You’re looking at nearly $30 billion of direct and indirect costs. That’s not even the induced — if you’re into economics. If you think about that number, what happens when a gas line is hit and if there’s any property damage if there’s a shut-off?
Russel: Even beyond damage, right?
Russel: If you hit a line and you end service, there’s an economic impact for ending service until it’s restored.
Sarah: Shutting down restaurants or stores until it’s restored. I had a dig-in in front of my house. There was a water line that was mismarked, and they hit the main line. There was no water in my neighborhood for about six-and-a-half hours.
You have traffic issues. Police have to intervene. The fire station has to show. There are all these other things that we don’t think about — lost wages, lost revenue, downtime for the excavator, all of those other costs that go into this. That just reinforces why we have to look at mitigating as much as we can on the frontend.
Russel: For pipeliners who are interested, how would they find out more about the Common Ground Alliance, and how would they find the DIRT Report?
Sarah: Our website is commongroundalliance.com. If you go there, you will see that you can click on the DIRT Report. That will take you to the dashboard, where you can look at that. You can look at the Best Practices online as well. You can also look at our white papers and a variety of other resources we have.
Particularly for our members, we have toolkits. We try to make it easy for our members to educate those that work for them and those in their community with templates they can use, graphics they can use. If you want to get down in, like I said, to the nitty-gritty, you can certainly read the DIRT Report online. It will be eye-opening for those who have never looked at it before.
Russel: I appreciate you coming on, Sarah. This is awesome. We will link all of this up in the show notes and put that up on the website. For those that are interested, they can go through there and peruse it and find their way to these resources.
Sarah: Great. Thanks, Russel. I appreciate your time.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Sarah. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinepodcastnetwork.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
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Transcription by CastingWords