Let it snow, let it snow!

December 1, 2006 By    

Usually described as the busy season, winter brings with it many good things for propane markets in colder climates.

 John McCoy LP/Gas Magazine Columnist
John McCoy LP/Gas Magazine Columnist

It also brings heavy snowfalls that can completely bury a propane tank in the field. In some circumstances the tank lines can even break under the weight of the snow.

The 2004 edition of NFPA 58 addresses those special circumstances: “In locations where the monthly maximum depth of snow accumulation, as determined from the National Weather Service or other published statistics, is more than the height of above-ground containers, excluding the dome cover, the following requirements shall apply: (1) A stake or other marking shall be installed higher than the average snow cover depths, up to a height of 15 ft (4.6m) and (2) the container shall be installed to prevent its movement resulting from snow accumulation.”

This language is a change from a provision found in the 2001 edition of NFPA 58, which simply stated that “In locations where heavy snow can be expected to cover the container, the following additional requirements shall apply” and then it essentially listed the same two requirements as set out in the 2004 edition.

The genesis of this code requirement was a severe problem in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California during the winter of 1992-93. It was meant to apply to areas where very heavy snowfalls can be expected, even if infrequently. In the Sierra Nevadas, heavy snowfalls were recorded about every 10 years.

The goal of the code is to enable the gas company to locate the container for refilling and ensure that snow removal operations will not further bury the container. It also is designed to prevent damage to the piping caused by movement of the container from heavy snow.

Originally this section was seen by many in the industry as applying only to mountainous areas of the country with historically large snow accumulations. However, the actual language of the 2001 code section did not limit its application to those regions of the country.

The commentary to the code also attempts to clarify what constitutes “heavy snow,” although it is not controlling in a court of law.

This code section was the only theory of liability against a marketer that I represented in a tragic South Dakota accident. Two people were badly burned and one man died as a result of a 1,000-gallon propane tank being sliced open by a pay loader’s bucket that was moving snow after a blizzard. The tank did not have a flag per the code requirement.

Ultimately, we tried the case to verdict and the jury determined that the gas marketer was not negligent and did not cause the injuries sustained by either of the injured parties. The case was instrumental in causing this section of the code to be changed.

Propane marketers should know that this provision applies to any tank that is known to be subject to snow accumulation that is more than the height of the tank. The important limitation is that snow cover is defined from the National Weather Service, which looks at average snow cover for a 30-day period. This is different than measuring snow on the ground.

This data is available online and should be consulted to see if your area of the country needs to flag its tanks. If so, now is the time to mark your tanks, before the heavy stuff sets in.

John V. McCoy is the president of McCoy & Hofbauer, S.C. and specializes in the representation of propane companies. He can be reached at 800-599-8300 or jmccoy@mh-law.us.

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