Written by attorney Robert Louis Mezzetti II

Will PG&E be liable for the San Bruno fire?

Seven San Bruno residents were killed and hundreds were displaced when a gas line exploded on September 9, 2010, damaging and destroying several hundred homes. In an emailed statement, PG&E hedged, “If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability."

This statement provides little hope for residents in search of answers. Public accountability does not mean legal responsibility. PG&E owns the 30-inch gas pipeline that exploded, but is likely to deny liability, at least for the next 18 months while the cause of the blast is investigated.

How can PG&E deny liability?

PG&E’s steel pipeline crossed an old sewer line at Earl Avenue and Glenview Drive where the explosion occurred. In May 2008, the City of San Bruno hired a contractor to replace that sewer line. The contractor used a replacement method known to disrupt adjacent soil and rock. PG&E stated that it had inspected the gas line before and after the sewer work and found no problems.

PG&E also notes that the pipeline was installed in 1956. Local governments approved the zoning changes and building permits that allowed people to live near a pipeline, including the Crestmoor subdivision. Maps showing pipeline locations were publicly available. However, the utility won’t provide a map of high-pressure lines, citing “a security issue".

Was the pipeline properly maintained?

The owner of property is responsible for properly maintaining it. According to PG&E, it found no leaks during a regularly scheduled inspection of the San Bruno pipeline in March 2010.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted that the gas line appeared welded together from small sections of pipe with a seam running its length, which may have made it more vulnerable to leaks or corrosion. This would be consistent with the pattern of the pipeline’s lateral break. NTSB investigators are studying the damaged pipeline.

According to a memo released by a consumer advocacy group, PG&E put a segment of pipeline a few miles north of the explosion on a list of its 100 riskiest sections of pipeline, and recommended to gas rate regulators that it be replaced due to heavy urbanization in the area. No leaks have been found in that segment.

Who regulates PG&E?

Most of the natural gas used in California comes from out-of-state natural gas basins; California's regulated utilities do not own any natural gas production facilities. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulates the transportation of natural gas on the interstate pipelines, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) often participates in FERC regulatory proceedings to represent the interests of California natural gas consumers.

If the pipe that burst is part of PG&E’s interstate pipeline system, regulations promulgated by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety Operations apply, and are found in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Parts 190, 191, and 192. Part 190 prescribes procedures for investigation and enforcement, and for the adoption of regulations. Part 191 “prescribes requirements for the reporting of incidents, safety-related conditions, and annual pipeline summary data." Part 192 “prescribes minimum safety requirements for pipeline facilities and the transportation of gas." It includes minimum requirements for the selection of pipe and components used in pipelines, including details of their design, chemical make-up, and construction, with references to standardized industry specifications. Part 192 also “prescribes minimum requirements for the operation of pipeline facilities" and for the “maintenance of pipeline facilities." It sets forth operating and maintenance procedures, and requires each pipeline operator to prepare a manual of written procedures for conducting operations and maintenance, which must include procedures for safety during operations and maintenance, including procedures for operating, maintaining, and repairing the pipeline in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the operations and maintenance provisions of the regulations.

What rights do private landowners have?

In cities, it is customary to devote not only the surface of the street and the space above the street to public use, but the municipality may, and frequently does, occupy the soil beneath the surface for the accommodation of sewers, gas and water pipes. Where the city undertakes to occupy the space above or below the surface of the street for any purpose within the scope of the public uses to which highways may be put, the use by the private owner must yield to the public use.

In other words, private homeowners can’t restrict the utility’s subsurface use of land, but may make claims for actual damages caused by negligent maintenance or workmanship. Claims against a public entity must be made within six months.

Will insurance cover the damage?

Until the investigation is concluded, residents have been urged to contact their private insurance companies, who may later turn to any responsible entities for reimbursement. Insured persons whose policies were lost in the fire should request copies before making any statements to the insurance companies. Remember that losses may exceed policy limits, and consider consulting an attorney before signing any release.

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