Appeals Court Dismisses City’s Lawsuit Against Federal Pipeline Safety Agency

A U.S. appeals court today dismissed a lawsuit in which the city of San Francisco claimed a federal pipeline safety agency failed to enforce safety standards for natural gas pipelines in California.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on behalf of San Francisco in 2012 in the wake of the fatal PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010.

Eight people died and 66 others were injured in the explosion of a high-pressure natural gas transmission pipeline and the ensuing fire.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claimed the federal agency “abjectly failed” in its duty to oversee the California Public Utilities Commission’s enforcement of pipeline safety regulations within the state.

In today’s decision, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco unanimously said the city didn’t have the authority to sue the federal agency.

It said the U.S. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act allows citizens or public entities to file lawsuits only against utilities accused of violating the law, and not against the federal regulatory agency.

The court also rejected a second argument in which the city argued the federal agency violated an administrative procedures law.

The panel said the U.S. agency had the discretion to decide when to dispute a state agency’s enforcement of safety standards.

Chief Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas wrote, “San Francisco has presented very troubling allegations about the (federal) agency’s approach to monitoring the CPUC’s regulation of intrastate pipelines.

“However, we have no authority to compel agency action merely because the agency is not doing something we may think it should do,” Thomas wrote.

The Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act provides that the safety administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, must prescribe minimum safety standards for pipelines.

State agencies, such as the CPUC, can certify that their regulations for intrastate pipelines meet the minimum standards. The federal agency has the power to reject a state’s self-certification, but also has the discretion to determine whether and when to initiate proceedings to take such action, the court said.

Because the agency must monitor all states, “the agency requires regulatory flexibility in deciding how to allocate enforcement resources,” Thomas wrote.

The appeals court upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg of San Francisco.

Herrera spokesman Matt Dorsey said, “We’re disappointed with the decision. But even in a ruling that didn’t go our way, the 9th Circuit conceded that San Francisco’s concerns about pipeline safety were legitimate.

“We can hope this outcome highlights the need for regulatory and policy changes,” Dorsey said.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the Sept. 9, 2010, explosion in San Bruno was caused by a rupture in a defective seam weld in a pipeline segment that was incorrectly listed in PG&E records as seamless.

The appeals court judges noted in today’s ruling that the NTSB also found that contributing factors included “regulatory provisions exempting the ruptured pipeline from pressure testing requirements (and) the CPUC’s failure to detect PG&E’s inadequate safety program.”

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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