They’ve proven indispensable for pipeline construction — shouldn’t they be a given on more sensitive work?
“In contrast, integrity digs are conducted during all seasons and conditions with no provision for cleaning stations, placing greater stress on soils and opening lands to greater threat of erosion and contamination.”
By Dave Baspaly
Every time land is opened — for any purpose, and no matter how carefully — some topsoil/subsoil is lost and the deeper soil structure is altered in a way that takes years to restore. Soil preservation is a major reason farmers — especially in Western Canada — have been turning steadily to no-till practices.
So, while many landowners support pipelines in the interest of public benefit — a clean, safe, economical method of delivering necessary energy — they do so at some risk to their own interests. Land is cut open and put at risk in order to install pipelines.
CAEPLA exists to protect land and landowner interests, so good-hearted, hard-working people can continue to cooperate in the interests of economic development.
For some years now, CAEPLA has advocated that the watchful eyes of independent third-party monitors are key to protecting landowner interests during pipeline construction. These trained observers verify that, from the moment the first surveyor’s boots touch the soil till the last shovelful of soil is replaced and re-vegetated, operators follow practices that safeguard the land and landowners.
If construction monitors have proven vital during major pipeline construction, what about integrity digs? These digs generally attract no public attention, no environmental activism and no Indigenous community protests. Yet, every year, thousands of acres are re-opened to risks which may be even greater than during initial construction.
What are integrity digs?
Your area pipeline operator considers the integrity dig a maintenance activity essential to safe operation. Periodically, the ground is opened to expose “live” pipelines to human scrutiny. Locations are chosen where in-line instruments (smart pigs) indicate there may be some developing corrosion or cracking, which if not repaired could lead to an environmental spill or explosion.
What responsible landowner wouldn’t sacrifice a measure of self-interest for the general safety and well-being of the public and our shared environment? Yet, should we continue to permit this activity without safeguards that apply to initial construction?
Here are some of the many reasons integrity digs deserve greater oversight and protections
- Major pipeline construction projects draw public attention.
More at stake=More eyes=More careful work
- Major pipeline construction is backed by big budgets. This money affects everything down the line: planning, personnel, resources and access. In contrast, integrity digs are conducted under operations budgets where staff are tasked with protecting more pipe with less money every year. Pressure builds on operators to cut corners.
- Planning and scheduling for major pipelines must: 1) fit into seasonal windows prescribed by government regulators in order to protect rare plants and wildlife, and, 2) comply with (CAEPLA-negotiated) landowner agreements to protect topsoil from being stripped in frozen conditions and soils from being contaminated by unwashed equipment.
- Personnel: Major pipelines often attract the most experienced and skilled crews, which are drawn to higher pay, greater support and greater employment stability. This doesn’t mean that an integrity dig will be performed by incompetent workers, but crew members may be less skilled and experienced, while being asked to perform even more challenging work.
- Resources devoted to construct major pipelines are much greater than those directed to individual digs scattered across many — often remote — properties.
Major pipeline projects can afford, and have access to, a number of specified pieces of equipment which perform a particular function better than any other.
Integrity digs are usually performed by an excavator or backhoe, the Swiss Army knife of construction. It can perform most tasks well enough, but may not be the ideal tool for some. Further, the successful handling of soils on any integrity dig is almost completely dependent on the skill of the hoe operator.
- Access to work on your land during major pipeline construction is usually established at road crossings. From there, crews move up and down the pipeline right-of-way (already disturbed and stripped of topsoil and less susceptible to soil contamination) to access your land. Often crews are bused to the work site each day, limiting the number of vehicles which travel on and off the right-of-way each day, further limiting the risk of soil contamination and disturbance.
“Temporary Access” to an integrity dig site usually involves making a new traffic path across your land. This increases the amount of land that is disturbed (risking rutting and soil compaction) and susceptible to imported pathogens (e.g. on the wheels of as many as a dozen welding trucks per day).
- Finally, integrity digs are the “exploratory surgery” of pipeline work. No one can predict the extent of damage until the ground is opened and pipe is exposed. Crews may have to expose many more metres of pipe than expected in order to find a segment free of corrosion/cracking upon which to anchor a protective sleeve that’s welded around the entire length of the treated area. This means that the trench might be left open for many more months than expected — even over a winter season. This subjects the land to more wind and water erosion.
What’s the bottom line? If independent monitors are crucial to protecting land and landowner interests during initial pipeline construction, they are even more vital to oversee the more complex, unpredictable and under-resourced activity of integrity digs.
Dr. Dave Baspaly is an experienced corporate leader and a certified management consultant with a remarkable ability to help people increase performance and achieve strategic goals.
Published in PIPELINE OBSERVER Winter 2021
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