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PHMSA Lapses Blamed in Pipeline Blasts

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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Federal pipeline regulators “abjectly failed” to enforce safety standards for more than a decade before a series of deadly pipeline explosions hit California, the City of San Francisco contends in a new lawsuit.

 The 2010 San Bruno explosion

 Mbz1 / Wikimedia Commons

The 2010 San Bruno explosion outside San Francisco killed eight people, injured 50, and flattened dozens of homes.

Regulators "were either asleep at the switch or far too cozy with the industry they're supposed to regulate," City Attorney Dennis Herrera alleges in a suit filed last week against the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

‘Shirking that Duty’

The suit accuses PHMSA of neglecting its duties under the federal Pipeline Safety Act “to ensure that the California Public Utilities Commission is complying with its certification and that federal pipeline safety standards are being enforced in California.”

PHMSA “has been shirking that duty for over a decade, if not longer,” the suit says. “As a consequence, there have been a series of natural gas pipeline disasters in recent years that have resulted in numerous deaths and injuries and widespread destruction of property.”

Those incidents include:

• A 2008 explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas distribution line in Rancho Cordova that killed one person and injured five others;

• The 2010 explosion of a PG&E natural-gas pipeline that killed eight people, injured more than 50 and gutted a neighborhood in San Bruno, 12 miles south of San Francisco; and

• A 2011 failure and explosion of a plastic PG&E distribution pipe at a condominium in Cupertino.

‘A Disturbing Picture’

The explosions paint “a disturbing picture” of a federal safety agency that has “abdicated its duty” to oversee CPUC and “ensure that federal pipeline safety standards are being enforced,” the suit argues.

 PHMSA inspector


The 2013 federal budget proposal includes more PHMSA inspectors and more funds for project evaluation, to distance the agency from private industry.

CPUC, in turn, “has failed to enforce federal pipeline safety standards” and “has allowed PG&E to blatantly violate those standards,” Herrera said.

‘Blind Trust’

The suit quotes a National Transportation Safety Board report on the San Bruno disaster as saying that PHMSA and CPUC "placed a blind trust in the companies that they were charged with overseeing—to the detriment of public safety." 

NTSB’s report expressed "strong doubts about the quality and effectiveness of enforcement at both the federal and state levels.”

“Although PHMSA and the CPUC have authority to enforce pipeline safety regulations, the organizational failures of PG&E seen in this accident suggest that some operators are able to ignore certain standards without concern for meaningful enforcement action against them," the report said.

Court Order Sought

The suit follows a July 2011 announcement by Herrera that he would seek a court order compelling the PHMSA and CPUC to fulfill their federally mandated enforcement duties. Herrera says PHMSA has ignored his suggestions for alternatives to litigation.

CPUC, on the other hand, has modified some of its enforcement and regulatory practices, Herrera said in a release. Thus, the litigation names only PHMSA, which “is still asleep at the switch,” he said.

PHMSA has not responded to San Francisco’s suit.

‘Keeping the Industry Happy’

Herrera also cited a 2009 review by the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which concluded that PHMSA was broadly failing in its legal duties to protect public safety. The report called PHMSA “less than diligent in far too many instances, because it appears to be inappropriately 'cozy' with industry."

PHMSA staff members reported that the agency "had changed its focus from keeping the public safe to keeping the industry happy" and that the industry essentially "ran the organization."

Last week, President Obama unveiled his 2013 budget request, which includes $276 million for PHMSA, a $75 million increase over the FY 2012 allocation.

The plan includes $177 million for the administration’s 2011 Pipeline Safety Reform initiative. The changes include more federal pipeline inspectors and additional R&D funds, to allow the agency to “amend its project evaluation and decision process so there is no industry participation.”


Tagged categories: Accidents; Health and safety; Inspection; Pipeline; Pipelines

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