After Tragedy, Calls To End License Exemption

January/February 2019

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
After Tragedy, Calls To End License Exemption

BY STEPHANIE HAMILTON

Since the National Transportation Safety Board released its recommendation that Massachusetts eliminate its engineering license exemption for gas companies, exemption has become a hot topic. Consequently, this is a good time to take a look at NSPE’s position statement about exemptions, and talk about what we mean, and why we’ve taken such a strong position.

First, it’s important to note that NSPE’s position statement on “industrial exemptions” (No. 09-173) applies to any exemption that allows someone to practice engineering without a license, regardless of the industry, business sector, or government entity. This position is a long-standing one, as evidenced by our years of work to undo exemption laws.

Currently, 53 states and territories allow licensing exemptions in some form. Sixteen states have exemptions for public utilities—something the NTSB took issue with in its investigation and report on the Merrick Valley gas line explosions. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker agreed with NTSB’s recommendation, and quickly submitted legislation aimed at eliminating that exemption. NSPE was grateful to have been part of the NTSB’s investigative process, and to provide information about the harm licensing exemptions can cause to public health and safety.

To be sure, NSPE’s position on, and advocacy for, professional licensure isn’t tied to an expectation that licensing every engineer means nothing bad will ever happen. Nor is it meant to imply that engineers who are not licensed are incompetent or incapable. It’s unrealistic to think any action will prevent accidents 100% of the time. Licensed or not, people are people and mistakes will happen. Additionally, even without human error, accidents will still happen. Licensure won’t fix that.

To explain our position, we’ve begun using the analogy of a seat belt, or a helmet, when talking about the protections that licensure offers. Wearing your seat belt in a car or helmet on a motorcycle don’t guarantee that you won’t get into an accident. Nor do they guarantee that you won’t get hurt if you’re in one. Those actions, however, give you the best chance for safety and for minimal injury if something goes wrong. In the same way, licensing doesn’t eliminate risks. But by setting a minimum standard of qualifications, and providing a mechanism for accountability, licensure provides the best chance for safety.

Our hope is that something good can come of the Merrick Valley tragedy. Baker took an important step by introducing legislation. NSPE intends to remain vigilant and do all we can to make sure the governor’s bill becomes law. More broadly, we hope Massachusetts will become the first of many states to finally bring an end to PE licensing exemptions, and give engineers the best chance for protecting the public health and safety.

Stephanie Hamilton is NSPE’s manager of government relations and advocacy.

NTSB Recommendations

Though the National Transportation Safety Board’s full report is expected at a later date, in November the agency issued a series of urgent recommendations as a result of its investigation into the Merrick Valley, Massachusetts, gas pipeline explosions that left one person dead and several injured. NSPE is encouraged by NTSB’s focused on engineering license exemptions, and the role professional engineers play in protecting public health and safety.

According to the NTSB, the gas distribution system included 14 regulators that reduced pressure in the system from about 75 pounds per square inch, gauge (psig) to about 0.5 psig. The regulators are critical for maintaining uniform pressure throughout the system. The explosions occurred because, as pipe upgrades were being made, one of the regulators that had been bypassed during upgrade was not properly reintegrated into the system. Because it was disconnected, it measured a significant (and inaccurate) drop in system pressure. The other regulators responded by allowing pressure in their respective sections to increase, in an effort to stabilize the system. The result was overpressurization. Though a monitoring center in Columbus, Ohio, received two high-pressure warning alarms prior to the explosions, the center couldn’t control any of the regulators.

Summary of NTSB Recommendations

For Massachusetts

  • Massachusetts should eliminate the professional engineer licensing exemption for public utility workers; and
  • Massachusetts should require public utility construction and modification drawings to be signed and sealed by a professional engineer.

For NiSource (parent company of Columbia Gas)

  • Revise construction document review processes so that every relevant department verifies them for accuracy and safety, and signs off;
  • Require construction and modification documents to be signed and sealed by a professional engineer;
  • Review documentation for all natural gas systems; ensure the documents are up-to-date and the system designs are traceable; and
  • Develop and implement procedures for controlling pipeline pressure during modifications. Procedures should include continuous monitoring during the modification process, and the ability to immediately shut down the system in the event of an emergency.