The city of San Francisco took the unusual step Tuesday of asking a judge to force federal natural-gas safety regulators to step up efforts in California, saying the government “abjectly failed” to enforce pipeline laws before and after the 2010 explosion that devastated a San Bruno neighborhood.
At issue in City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, is the performance of the little-known U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Although it is charged with enforcing federal safety law, the agency relies on states to do much of its oversight.
Herrera’s suit says federal officials never set standards and let California’s enforcement dwindle in the years leading up to the September 2010 explosion of a PG&E pipeline in San Bruno.
‘Blind trust in operators’
In its investigative report on the blast, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the pipeline agency tighten regulations on operators. The board’s chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, said PG&E had “exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight, and regulatory agencies that placed a blind trust in operators to the detriment of public safety.”
Herrera’s lawsuit echoes those findings, saying the pipeline agency stood by for more than a decade while the California Public Utilities Commission failed to detect PG&E’s safety problems, questionable pipeline-management practices and shoddy record keeping.
The state agency allowed utilities to police and report their own safety violations in lieu of being fined. The agency has changed its approach since the San Bruno disaster and recently proposed a $16.8 million penalty against PG&E for failing to conduct leak inspections on several miles of gas distribution pipelines in the East Bay.
“In the absence of any meaningful oversight by PHMSA, the CPUC has, for decades, forsaken its duty to enforce federal pipeline safety standards,” the city said in its suit. Under those circumstances, the suit said, “it is not a question of if another pipeline will explode, but a question of when.”
The pipeline safety agency issued a statement Tuesday declining to comment on the lawsuit but stressing its “core” commitment to safety.
“That’s why we devoted hundreds of hours of staff support and technical expertise to the NTSB and the California Public Utilities Commission to understand the San Bruno tragedy,” the agency said.
Failure to monitor
The suit said the federal government’s failures were putting San Franciscans at risk. It is the first time a local government has sought stricter regulation from the pipeline safety agency, said Rick Kessler, a lobbyist for the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on safety improvements.
“If this brings better oversight and enforcement,” he said, “I applaud it.”
The suit seeks a court order to compel federal pipeline safety officials to set performance standards for state regulators who oversee gas transmission lines.
According to the complaint, the U.S. pipeline agency gave California $1.3 million in 2010 to oversee pipeline safety, yet “never meaningfully evaluated” how the money was spent or measured the effectiveness of the state’s program.
Federal officials knew California’s enforcement efforts had been understaffed since 1998, the suit said, resulting in a small proportion of federal funding being allocated to the state. Inspections became so infrequent by 2006 that the pipeline agency warned the Public Utilities Commission that California was jeopardizing public safety.
The explosion of a gas distribution pipeline in Cupertino in August, in which a condominium was destroyed, is evidence that the federal government hasn’t done enough to strengthen its regulatory efforts since the San Bruno disaster, the suit said.
That explosion happened because of a leak in a notoriously brittle type of 1970s-era plastic pipe, which the government recommended in 1998 that pipeline operators replace. Regulators have never ordered companies to do so, though.
Giving up authority
The federal agency, “for all practical purposes, has allowed gas pipeline operators like PG&E to regulate themselves and, in doing so, has improperly delegated its authority to enforce federal pipeline safety standards to those operators,” the suit said.
Although Herrera earlier threatened to sue the Public Utilities Commission as well, he said Tuesday that the state agency has improved its oversight of PG&E since 2010.
“We are participating in the administrative process to make sure the CPUC follows through on its pledge,” Herrera said in an interview.
PG&E had no comment on the suit except to emphasize actions it has taken since the San Bruno explosion to try to make its gas system safer.