"Out of Sight, Out of Mind" No Longer Works: Locating Pipelines and Other Underground Infrastructure

by John Byrd

The nation’s underground infrastructure is aging and deteriorating at a rapid rate.  According to a University of Idaho study, “Much has been made, in recent years, of the potential crisis facing the nation due to our aging infrastructure. This concern is easily understood by the public as they travel along highways constructed over 50 years ago and cross bridges built by their grandparents. In contrast, however, the deteriorating condition of the nation’s underground infrastructure has not been appreciated to the same degree.  This is primarily because water mains and sewer mains tend to be ‘out of sight and out of mind.’”  

Now more than ever municipal officials, transportation designers, and utilities and pipeline operators need solid information to manage existing underground infrastructure and to plan for the challenges of tomorrow. In addition to these energy, transportation, and municipal operations, telecom and buried electric transmission and distribution clients have similar needs.

Surveys and maps of underground utilities are often inaccurate. In many cases, they don’t even exist. Underground infrastructure is relocated during repairs or renovations, but maps are not updated. Sometimes maps represent proposed plans that don’t show as-built locations. Old surveys and maps are simply lost or disintegrated. Contractors who comply with a legal obligation to contact a central utility marking system before digging may have a false sense of security because lost or inaccurately located utilities generally will not be marked as a result of such a call.

The American Public Works Association estimates that an underground utility line is hit somewhere in the United States every 60 seconds, with an annual cost due to utility damage in the billions. Major factors contributing to these issues are the inaccuracy of records’ location data, contractors not calling clearinghouse systems, unmarked utilities, and crowding within rights of way.

The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found that only 35% of municipal utility records are complete and up to date.  Of those, only 35% reflect as-built conditions. That assessment was made in 1974. The situation has only gotten worse.

A report by the American Water Works Association estimates $1 trillion is needed over the next 25 years to replace water systems that are coming to the end of their useful lives.  No investment of that magnitude should lack accurate location information.

Underground utility location issues are costly.  Moreover, digging or drilling in the vicinity of unknown, unmarked, unmapped, or incorrectly located utilities can be costly in terms of wasted excavation time, service disruption and utility downtime, property damage, and—worst of all—personal injury or loss of life.

The situation has become so dire that the Transportation Research Board’s Strategic Highway Research Program announced in December 2008 that it will be funding research grants in:
  • technologies to support storage, retrieval, and utilization of 3D utility location data,
  • multi-sensor platforms for locating underground utilities, and
  • innovation in the location of underground utilities.
The issue of location of pipelines and other underground utility infrastructure has attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress. At a recent hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, the panel’s chairman, senator Jay Rockefeller, said, “They crisscross underneath our cities and country sides, yet most of the time we are not even aware they are there. They deliver critical fuel that powers our homes, factories, and offices, and also transport the oil and gas that keep our cars, trucks, and planes operating. They are the critical conduit between the shale gas development boom in our region and the rest of the country. Most days, the network of pipelines operates across the country without a hitch.  Compared to other forms of transportation, pipelines are a relatively safe, clean and efficient way of transporting the goods they carry. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.” 

Rockefeller continued, “Lack of records about older pipelines is a real problem and contributed to a catastrophic pipeline explosion in California that killed several people.” As a result, Congress passed a new law that “required that critical pipeline location and inspection information be provided to the public to build greater awareness of the lines that exist in and around our communities.”

Congress’s watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, reported on a recently completed study, “Pipeline Safety: Better Data and Guidance Could Improve Operators’ Responses to Incidents,” saying, “the location of the valve, existing shutdown capabilities, proximity of personnel to the valve’s location, the likelihood of an ignition, type of product being transported, operating pressure, topography, and pipeline diameter, among other factors, all play a role in determining the extent to which an automated valve would be advantageous.”  

Initiatives such as The National Map and the NSDI (National Spatial Data Infrastructure) Framework Data Theme Layers address only above-ground and underwater features. A large portion of the nation’s assets are underground and are not included in any of the national geospatial initiatives to update and complete surveying, mapping, and location-based data of the nation. 

It could be considered irresponsible of the surveying, mapping, and GIS profession not to include underground infrastructure features to form a complete NSDI, especially when

Indeed, “out of sight, out of mind” no longer applies. The surveying and mapping profession should take the lead in investigating the problem of underground infrastructure location and show the benefits of including underground infrastructure as a data layer in national spatial data initiatives.  The Federal Geographic Data Committee should be encouraged to include these features as an NSDI data layer.  Legislation to address this important issue should be prepared.

John Byrd is the government affairs manager for John M. Palatiello & Associates, a public affairs, association management, and consulting firm in Reston, VA. He has more than 12 years of public-policy experience. He is also the government affairs manager for MAPPS, the national association for private-sector geospatial firms and registered lobbyist for the National Society of Professional Surveyors.

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