PHMSA ‘still asleep at the switch,’ City Attorney says, after ignoring S.F.’s concerns, recommendations of federal investigators
SAN FRANCISCO (Feb. 14, 2012) — City Attorney Dennis Herrera today sued the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for having “abjectly failed” to enforce federal gas pipeline safety standards for more than a decade prior to the deadly explosion of a PG&E gas transmission line in San Bruno, Calif., which on Sept. 9, 2010 claimed eight lives, injured more than 50 others, and destroyed or damaged more than 100 homes.
The lawsuit proceeds from a move Herrera undertook last year, when he notified federal and state regulators of his intent to seek a court order compelling them to fulfill their enforcement duties as required by the Pipeline Safety Act. The July 14, 2011 letter to PHMSA and the California Public Utilities Commission offered to discuss alternatives to litigation in order to ensure that the public safety protections mandated by federal law were being met. Yet according to the city’s complaint filed today, PHMSA ignored San Francisco’s concerns about the inadequacy of its oversight, and has similarly flouted recommendations from a National Transportation Safety Board investigation report that faulted both PG&E’s negligence and lax governmental enforcement for the San Bruno blast.
“One of the most troubling findings to emerge in the 18 months since the San Bruno tragedy is that regulators were either asleep at the switch or far too cozy with the industry they’re supposed to regulate,” said Herrera. “And in the case of PHMSA, the agency is still asleep at the switch. It has ignored the concerns San Francisco expressed last year, it insists it administers a ‘strong’ pipeline safety program, and it continues to flout recommendations from the NTSB, which blamed its failures in part for the blast. Human life and safety clearly demand meaningful enforcement of gas pipeline standards — and federal law requires it. That’s why I’m today seeking a court order to compel PHMSA to live up to its enforcement responsibilities.”
Notably unnamed in the action filed in U.S. District Court today is the California Public Utilities Commission which was a among the targets of the Herrera’s intent to sue notice last July. Though the complaint sharply criticizes CPUC for its ineffectiveness, it notes that in contrast to PHMSA, state regulators have since modified some of their enforcement and regulatory practices, and have taken steps to reallocate resources toward improving CPUC’s pipeline safety enforcement. Herrera’s office continues to participate in the CPUC’s ongoing proceedings “in the hopes of spurring meaningful change,” according to the pleading, while withholding judgment on “whether the CPUC will conduct a thorough and independent examination of its own failures and adopt meaningful reforms to its own practices.”
Last year’s investigation report from National Transportation Safety Board, which is responsible for determining the cause of certain transportation and pipeline accidents, found that PHMSA’s failures directly contributed to the San Bruno explosion, and that the agency’s failures were continuing. The investigation report found that PHMSA and CPUC together “placed a blind trust in the companies that they were charged with overseeing — to the detriment of public safety.” The investigation report also expressed “strong doubts about the quality and effectiveness of enforcement at both the Federal and state levels. Although PHMSA and the CPUC have authority to enforce pipeline safety regulations, the organizational failures of PG&E seen in this accident suggest that some operators are able to ignore certain standards without concern for meaningful enforcement action against them.”
Herrera’s notice of intent to sue additionally cited the 2009 findings of a U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which concluded that PHMSA 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 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 operates three major gas transmission lines — including the very same line that failed catastrophically in San Bruno in 2012, and another dating back to the 1930s — that run beneath densely populated residential areas and business districts in San Francisco where hundreds of thousands live and work. 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.
The case is: City and County of San Francisco v. United States Department of Transportation, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, filed Feb. 14, 2012.
PDF of the PHMSA complaint filing presskit (Feb. 14, 2012)