Using a citizen lawsuit provision in the Pipeline Safety Act, San Francisco’s city attorney has informed the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that it plans to sue both of them for alleged failure to “reasonably enforce” the federal pipe law regarding last year’s fatal natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion in nearby San Bruno, CA.

Under the federal law’s citizen provision, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera was required to notify his alleged targets and has until Sept. 12 to actually file the threatened lawsuit. The notification was a 13-page letter that outlines the proposed lawsuit. It was directed to the CPUC and PHMSA, along with Gov. Jerry Brown and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Herrera alleges that the CPUC did not adequately monitor the pipeline owner/operator Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s (PG&E) compliance with integrity management requirements and that PHMSA failed to ensure adequate enforcement of those requirements directly or by the CPUC’s oversight, according to a recent pipeline safety update by the law firm Van Ness Feldman.

Meanwhile, California and several other states are debating pipeline safety legislation while Congress continues to debate new pipeline safety bills.

Although PG&E had no immediate reaction, this is another in a continuing series of legal and regulatory actions tarnishing the image of the giant San Francisco-based combination utility. Other actions include threats of fines and penalties against the utility and a criminal investigation (see Daily GPI, June 21).

In a news release announcing his notices in mid-July, Herrera said the notices were a “legally required precursor” to filing civil litigation for the city, which he said will seek a federal court order “compelling” the CPUC and the U.S. Transportation Department’s PHMSA to enforce federal pipeline safety standards in an “effective manner.”

Herrera said the San Bruno explosion has shown that “blame must be shared by regulators who were either asleep at the switch or too cozy with the industry they’re supposed to regulate. While PG&E was flouting federal law, regulators did little to hold the company accountable.”

He said that what he called “potential future risks” to San Francisco and others from more gas pipeline failures “can no longer be ignored.”

Among the lawsuit points that are outlined in the long notification letter is an allegation by Herrera that PG&E’s gas transmission pipelines in San Francisco “are at risk of failure.” The three pipelines are the same as the ones running up the peninsula south of San Francisco that go through or near San Bruno (Lines 101, 109 and 132). It was a segment of the 30-inch diameter Line 132 that ruptured last September, causing the deadly explosion in a quiet San Bruno neighborhood.

The proposed lawsuit apparently builds a case for the strong links between the federal pipe law and PHMSA and CPUC responsibilities. It then proceeds to allege that in many different instances both the federal and state regulatory agencies “failed to enforce” the federal law.

Herrera used an independent review panel convened by the CPUC that strongly criticized the state regulatory unit in its final report in June (see Daily GPI, June 10) as the basis for suing them, and similarly he contends that PHMSA was accused of “failing to perform its legal duty” by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure a full year before the San Bruno explosion on Sept. 9.

“As evidenced by the San Bruno explosion, natural gas pipelines that are not adequately maintained pursuant to an effective integrity management program pose a serious threat to those who live, work and gather near them,” said Herrera, while concluding his notification with the invitation to discuss alternatives to litigation during the 60-day notice period that is now in effect under the federal pipe law.

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