Revelations from San Bruno tragedy lead San Francisco to seek federal court order compelling regulators to strictly enforce U.S. safety standards
SAN FRANCISCO (July 14, 2011) — City Attorney Dennis Herrera has taken the first step toward suing the California Public Utilities Commission and federal regulators for their failure to reasonably enforce federal gas pipeline safety standards as required by the Pipeline Safety Act. The notice of intent to sue Herrera delivered late today is a legally-required precursor to civil litigation by San Francisco, which will seek a federal court order to compel the CPUC and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to enforce federal pipeline safety standards in an effective manner.
Herrera’s move comes in the wake of increasingly troubling revelations in news accounts and last month’s sharply critical report by an independent review panel investigating the deadly explosion of a PG&E gas transmission line in San Bruno, Calif. on Sept. 9, 2010, which resulted in the loss of eight lives and the destruction of 38 homes. That investigation report concluded that CPUC’s “culture serves as an impediment to effective regulation,” and went on to fault regulators who “did not have the resources to monitor PG&E’s performance in pipeline integrity management adequately or the organizational focus that would have elevated concerns about PG&E’s performance in a meaningful way.” The City Attorney’s Office will file its comments on that investigation report with the CPUC tomorrow.
“In the aftermath of the San Bruno tragedy, it has become increasingly obvious that blame must be shared by regulators who were either asleep at the switch or too cozy with the industry they’re supposed to regulate,” said Herrera. “The potential threat to human life and safety demands the strictest enforcement of federal pipeline standards. Yet while PG&E was flouting federal law, regulators did little to hold the company accountable. Congress enacted the Pipeline Safety Act to allow for legal actions like the one I am initiating to protect public safety, and I am confident a federal court order will help accomplish that. The potential risks to San Franciscans and others from further gas pipeline failures can no longer be ignored.”
San Francisco’s notice of intent to sue additionally cited 2009 findings of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which found that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was broadly failing in its legal duties to protect public safety. The committee report concluded that: “PHMSA’s performance of its primary safety mission is less than diligent in far too many instances, because it appears to be inappropriately ‘cozy’ with industry.” PHMSA staff members reported that the federal agency “had changed its focus from keeping the public safe to keeping the industry happy,” and that the industry essentially “ran the organization.”
PG&E runs three major gas transmission lines — including the very same line that failed catastrophically in San Bruno last year, and another that dates back to the 1930s — under nine high-population-density neighborhoods in San Francisco where hundreds of thousands of people live and work, according to Herrera’s 14-page letter. Major facilities threatened by the failure of these inadequately inspected transmission lines include numerous schools and recreation centers, San Francisco City College, and San Francisco General Hospital, which typically contains more than 5,000 acute care patients and visitors, medical professionals and staff. Significant stretches of Highway 101 and Highway 280 additionally run over the antiquated lines.
Herrera’s letter outlines San Francisco’s prospective legal action, detailing the manner in which CPUC and PHMSA: (1) failed to enforce federal regulations mandating that pipeline operators maintain adequate records to enable the operator and regulators to ensure that pipeline conditions are not a threat to public safety; (2) failed to enforce federal regulations requiring that gas transmission pipeline operators identify all “high consequence areas” in which pipeline failure would result in significant harm to people and damage to property; (3) failed to enforce federal regulations mandating inspections of gas transmission pipeline integrity for pipelines susceptible to manufacturing and construction defects or other risks; (4) failed to ensure that CPUC had staff sufficient in number, training, and experience to adequately fulfill its obligations to regulate and enforce pipeline safety regulations; (5) failed to ensure that integrity management inspections of gas transmission pipelines in California are performed with sufficient frequency and thoroughness to ensure pipeline safety; and (6) failed to require PG&E to correct violations found in audits of PG&E’s integrity management practices.