A California regulatory judge last week issued a proposed draft resolution to give safety staff broader authority to issue citations and levy fines for violations of natural gas pipeline regulations. The proposal is in response to a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in its final report on last year’s San Bruno, CA, pipeline rupture and explosion.

Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Angela Minkin drafted a resolution for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to consider, which would delegate more authority for pipeline safety to its Consumer Protection and Safety Division (CPSD). The proposal will be considered by the five-member CPUC at its Nov. 10 meeting.

The proposed action not only responds to the NTSB’s recommendation (see NGI, Sept. 5), it also is addresses recommendations made earlier this year by an independent review panel established by the CPUC that released some critical observations regarding the San Bruno pipeline (Line 132) operator, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), and the state regulatory commission (see NGI, June 13).

Separately, PG&E said it plans to begin earthquake retrofit work on a one-mile segment of Line132 north of the area where the tragedy occurred. Work is set to begin Monday and be concluded before the end of the year, involving the installation of new pipe near Colma Creek in South San Francisco, which is the peninsula suburb just to the north of San Bruno.

The need for the pipeline replacement was identified as part of the stepped inspection, testing and replacing of gas transmission pipelines that PG&E has been under pressure to do more of in the wake of San Bruno. “The project will ensure the integrity of the pipeline in the event of a major earthquake,” a utility spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Minkin’s proposal would delegate specific authority to the CPSD “or other such staff that may be designated by the CPUC’s executive director.” That authority relates to enforcing specific state rules on the design, construction, testing, maintenance and operation of utility gas gathering, transmission and distribution pipeline systems that are suppose to supplement the compliance with similar federal standards.

Added authority would include the power to direct what Minkin called “the immediate cure” of pipeline safety violations and to assess accompanying fines in amounts prescribed in the CPUC rules governing penalties.

“Penalty payments are the responsibility of shareholders of the investor-owned gas utilities are not to be charged to ratepayers,” the proposal resolution draft states, while outlining a process for appeal of these alleged violations and assessed fines.

The proposed added regulatory authority for CPSD or other designated staff “does not in any way diminish the utilities’ primary responsibility in operating their facilities,” said the draft resolution, which also points out that safety rules, regardless of how carefully they are prepared, cannot guarantee there will be no future accidents.

Under the proposed provisions, gas pipeline operators regulated by the CPUC have seven days to correct the cited violation(s) or request a one-time extension of no more than an additional seven days. The proposal states that paying fines does not eliminate the need to correct the safety violation(s).

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