Dredging spearheads action on pipeline safety

Responders inspect fire-damaged Jonathon King Boyd on 18 April following a pipeline strike. Credit: US Coast Guard
Responders inspect fire-damaged Jonathon King Boyd on 18 April following a pipeline strike. Credit: US Coast Guard

A fire off the coast of Texas earlier this year that severely damaged a dredging vessel and came close to being a deadly tragedy has given rise to a dredging industry task force dedicated to addressing submerged pipeline safety.

The Council for Dredging and Marine Construction Safety (CDMCS), an affiliate of the Dredging Contractors of America (DCA), is spearheading the initiative, partnering with state and federal agencies, energy associations, and pipeline companies, to ensure safe operations in waterways with submerged oil and natural gas pipelines.

“I joined [DCA] in January, and one of the first issues that came up was pipeline strikes,” DCA chief executive officer and executive director Bill Doyle told IHS Markit sister title Dredging and Port Construction (DPC) at CDMCS’s quarterly meeting in May. “We need to be talking about this more, because people can die.”

Just months after Doyle took over as head of DCA, such an outcome was narrowly averted. On the evening of 17 April, the US Coast Guard (USCG) received a mayday from the master of cutter suction dredger Jonathon King Boyd reporting that the vessel was on fire after puncturing a gas pipeline owned by Genesis Energy. The vessel, owned by RLB Contracting, was conducting dredging operations 3 km from Port O’Connor, Texas, in Matagorda Bay along the Gulf of Mexico.

The damaged vessel was towed to port two days later, after the crew had been evacuated and the fire extinguished. As of 30 August, a joint investigation into the accident by the USCG and the National Transportation Safety Board was ongoing, according to the USCG.

While the accident served as a wake-up call and impetus for creating the task force, concerns by the dredging industry about pipeline safety have been mounting for years, according to DCA vice-president Michael Gerhardt.

“It’s complicated because it touches on safety, regulation, and legal issues,” Gerhardt told DPC. “At the same time, the US Army Corps of Engineers [the federal agency responsible for awarding dredging contracts to private contractors] has its own human resource challenges, so it’s been difficult for it to lead the charge.”

Instead, CDMCS is pushing the agenda forward itself. Its quarterly meeting in Washington, DC, brought together for the first time officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA, an agency within the US Department of Transportation), and industry leaders to discuss pipeline safety and establish a blueprint for a task force.

One of the biggest issues to be tackled is ensuring dredging companies have the most up to date location information for submerged pipelines. PHMSA has a mapping database, but it is geared to land-based infrastructure and does not accurately track depth co-ordinates for pipelines in waterways. There are also communication gaps between PHMSA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the pipeline operators when it comes to compiling the most recent data.

“If our members aren’t comfortable with the accuracy of the information presented to them and decide not to dredge, we’re susceptible to an ‘unsatisfactory’ designation from the Army Corps,” Gerhardt said, “and that can affect their ability to win future contracts.”

Gerhardt, who serves as the pipeline task force director, is also planning to establish a best practice manual as a reference for those working in and around submerged pipelines. “As we go through the painstaking process of creating a manual, we think other benefits will be derived from it, including improved dialogue among contractors, pipeline operators, and the Army Corps,” he said.

The next meeting of the CDMCS Pipeline Task Force is scheduled for 18 September in Washington, DC.