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Greater oversight, regulation needed of directional drilling firms


A directional drilling crew struck a gas main July 10, 2018, near a busy intersection in downtown Sun Prairie.

Less than an hour later, the gas ignited, killing one person, critically injuring another. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) estimated damage at nearly $21 million.

According to PHMSA, there were 307 “significant” pipeline incidents nationwide in 2019, resulting in 35 injuries, 13 deaths and $289 million in damages.

This is only a fraction of the utility lines struck each year. According to Common Ground Alliance, a national non-profit group that advocates for safe excavation practices, in 2018, there were nearly 4,000 utility lines struck in Wisconsin. There were 31 utility strikes reported on the day of the Sun Prairie catastrophe.

Despite the millions of dollars in damages and lost lives, the world of directional drilling is largely unregulated in the state, with municipalities often not knowing who the contractors are, because permits are taken out by the utility companies and not listing subcontractors.

According to industry estimates, there are about 75,000 miles of natural gas pipelines and laterals underneath Wisconsin’s communities. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of miles of underground water, sewer, power and telecommunications lines.

When things go smoothly, directional drilling companies use their rigs to bore out and install new lines with minimal surface disruption.

The problem is, things don’t always go smoothly. Buried boulders can cause drilling equipment to shift, surface markings may not be properly placed or the need to meet contract deadlines can lead to unsafe haste.

Wisconsin is especially lax in regulation of directional drilling industry. For example, operators of other heavy machinery, such as cranes, must pass written and practical examinations to comply with federal rules. No such training or certification is needed for directional drilling.

There are no requirements for public disclosure of utility strikes, or for mandatory investigations into how strikes occurred or could have been prevented.

As reported by the Capital Times, there are few consequences, even for the most severe incidents. The contractor in the Sun Prairie explosion, has yet to pay the $25,000 fine imposed by the Public Service Commission (PSC). Since 2018, the PSC has issued just three fines totaling $31,000.

Wisconsin must step up regulation and oversight of directional drilling companies, to ensure the protection of lives and property in the state. The state should follow the lead of the state of Indiana, and the City of Chicago, Ill., in cracking down on poor performing contractors and imposing common sense safety standards.

In addition, there needs to be full disclosure to local municipalities, and to residents about the individual crews at work and the scope of their projects, including timelines for when they will occur.

Directional drilling is an important tool for the expansion of the state’s infrastructure needs. As with any tool, those using it must have the knowledge and skill to do so safely.

Wisconsin needs to level the playing field, and bring directional drilling companies in line with safety and accountability standards imposed on other contractors.

Members of the Courier Sentinel editorial board include publisher Carol O’Leary, general manager Kris O’Leary and Star News editor Brian Wilson.