The city of San Francisco filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA), accusing the U.S. Department of Transportation unit of having “abjectly failed” to enforce pipeline safety regulations prior to the fatal natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion in neighboring San Bruno.

Separately, city officials in San Bruno, CA, blasted Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) Wednesday for allegedly not doing all it promised in providing millions of dollars of restitution to the city and victims of the pipeline failure.

San Francisco’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, is seeking injunctions against federal officials to enforce pipeline safety regulations, ensure proper oversight over California regulators, and prevent those officials “from improperly delegating their authority to do so to gas pipeline operators.”

City Attorney Dennis Herrera alleges in the lawsuit that PHMSA was “still asleep at the switch” in the aftermath of the Sept. 9, 2010 tragedy that killed eight people and injured more than 50 others in the suburban residential neighborhood about 10 miles south of San Francisco.

The lawsuit claims that unless the PHMSA begins fulfilling its regulatory responsibilities there will be more pipeline failures. “It is not a question of if, but when” another major incident occurs, he said.

“One of the most troubling findings to emerge in the 18 months since San Bruno is that regulators were either asleep at the switch or far too cozy with the industry they’re supposed to regulate,” Herrera stated. “And in the case of PHMSA, the agency is still asleep at the switch.” The federal agency also is accused of ignoring recommendations by San Francisco that were issued last year and of “flouting” recommendations from its oversight board, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The city attorney had indicated last summer that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) would be included in a legal action (see Daily GPI, Aug. 3, 2011) but the court filing only criticizes the CPUC for alleged “ineffectiveness.” CPUC modified some enforcement and regulatory practices following the San Bruno tragedy.

The lawsuit cites a recommendation made last year by NTSB to take PG&E, PHMSA and CPUC to task for their individual and collective failures. NTSB earlier found that “PHMSA’s failures directly contributed to the San Bruno explosion, and the agency’s failings are continuing,” the lawsuit notes.

“The investigation report [by NTSB] also expressed ‘strong doubts’ about the quality and effectiveness of enforcement at both the federal and state levels,” according to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, San Bruno officials said Wednesday that they was at an impasse in negotiations regarding PG&E’s payment of restitution damages to the community. As a result, city officials have asked state regulators to get involved. At issue are confidential settlement talks between the parties.

PG&E maintained that it had not “walked away” from the ongoing talks and is seeking more meetings, the first being this Friday, according to PG&E’s Greg Pruett, senior vice president.

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane called on PG&E to “immediately return and bargain in good faith,” and at the same time petitioned the CPUC to become part of a global settlement with PG&E. While acknowledging that PG&E established a trust to pay for direct damages to city property and has funded $12 million to date, Ruane said the utility apparently is not willing to address “the momentous damage” done to the “fabric of the community that will last for generations.”

The stalemate in the talks centers on reimbursements that the city thinks PG&E should pay, in addition to commitments of up to $170 million by the utility, and a separate $70 million trust fund to cover its cost directly related to the fire and recovery efforts (see Daily GPI, Sept. 15, 2010).

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