Regulators Can’t Be Sued Over Gas Explosion

San Francisco may not sue the federal government in an effort to garner stricter enforcement of the national Pipeline Safety Act, in the wake of the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion and fire.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the law, Congress and court precedent do not allow citizen lawsuits against the Secretary of Transportation and the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in this instance.

In September 2010 a natural gas transmission pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. ruptured in San Bruno causing a massive fire ball and explosion that killed eight people and injured dozens more as well as destroying homes.

The explosion caused a crater 72 feet long and 26 feet wide. Roughly 47 million cubic feet of natural gas was released, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Fearing a recurrence, San Francisco sued the Transportation Secretary and the PHMSA. The city alleged the agency failed to comply with the 1968 safety law, which mandates it issue minimum federal safety standards for natural gas pipelines.

The California Public Utilities Commission has assumed jurisdiction to regulate intrastate pipelines.  San Francisco accused the PHMSA of violating the act by certifying the CPUC to regulate safety at PG&E’s pipeline.

In addition to the San Bruno case, a fatal explosion in 2008 in Rancho Cordova and in 2011 an accident in Cupertino cause significant damage. PG&E operated all three pipelines.

The NTSB found that the cause of the SanBruno explosion was “inadequate quality assurance and control since 1956 when the pipe was relocated.

The NTSB chairman and two other members said PG&E exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight and that state regulators “placed blind trust in the companies they were charged with overseeing.”

That did not save the San Francisco lawsuit.  The appeals court found that the Pipeline Safety Act is not an appropriate mechanism to seek legal relief for the DOT’s performance of its regulatory obligations.

“The plain statutory language, the statutory structure, the legislative history, the structure of similar federal statutes, and interpretations of similar statutory provisions by the Supreme Court and our sister circuits lead us to the conclusion that the Pipeline Safety Act does not authorize mandamus-type citizen suits against the agency,” the appeals court held.

Case: City of San Francisco v. Dept. of Transportation, No. 13-15855



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