In a blistering criticism of federal oversight of natural gas pipelines — including the San Bruno line that ruptured in 2010, killing eight people and leveling an entire neighborhood — San Francisco Tuesday sued the nation’s top regulator.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s federal lawsuit alleges that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration failed to enforce federal pipeline standards both before and after the San Bruno disaster, even in the face of large-scale state and federal investigations.
“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,” Herrera said in a statement Tuesday.
In addition to the San Bruno pipeline, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. operates two other major local gas transmission lines, Herrera said, one of which runs beneath “densely populated residential areas and business districts in San Francisco where hundreds of thousands live and work.” Failure of these lines could also threaten schools, recreations centers and San Francisco General Hospital, as well as stretches of highways 101 and 280, he said.
The pipeline administration declined comment on the suit. Spokeswoman Jeannie Layson said the agency is committed to its duties.
“We will keep working with state and local officials and communities, including San Francisco, who share a common responsibility to improve pipeline safety,” Layson said.
Herrera didn’t sue the California Public Utilities Commission, pointedly withholding judgment on the agency that actually oversees PG&E because of its recent efforts to improve its enforcement practices.
Under the federal Pipeline Safety Act, state pipeline regulators can assume responsibility for enforcing pipeline safety as long as there is federal oversight. But Herrera’s suit said the federal agency has shirked that duty for more than a decade, letting PG&E regulate itself.
“Self-regulation has allowed PG&E, with the apparent blessing of PHMSA and the CPUC, to pervasively and continuously violate federal pipeline safety standards in order to maximize profits at the expense of safety,” the suit said.
Such lax oversight has resulted in several PG&E natural gas pipeline disasters in California in recent years, the suit said, including in San Bruno, Rancho Cordova and Cupertino.
The suit also accused the agency of failing to respond to the recommendations of a National Transportation Safety Board report about the San Bruno disaster last year that was critical of both state and federal regulators. Unless the situation is corrected, the suit said, “it is not a question of if another pipeline will explode but a question of when.”
Layson of the federal agency said employees “devoted hundreds of hours” to the NTSB and CPUC “to understand the San Bruno tragedy.”
The suit is seeking injunctions requiring federal officials to enforce pipeline safety standards, ensure proper oversight over state regulators, and prevent those officials “from improperly delegating their authority to do so to gas pipeline operators.”
PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson declined to comment on the suit, but said the utility has been aggressively testing and inspecting its pipeline system, including those in San Francisco. “And we will continue to work aggressively to further enhance the safety of our system,” Swanson said.
2008: A PG&E pipeline in Rancho Cordova explodes, killing one person and injuring five others, and damaging several homes
2010: A PG&E pipeline in San Bruno ruptures, killing eight people and injuring more than 50 others, and destroying more than 100 homes
2011: A PG&E pipeline in Cupertino explodes, causing major damage to a condominium
Source: City Attorney federal lawsuit