Blast may change planning code

The deadly explosion in San Bruno could end up altering how buildings are constructed near natural-gas lines.

In many U.S. cities, including San Francisco, there are no rules requiring builders to consider pipeline-related risks — such as explosions — when constructing homes, schools or commercial space.

A task force led by the U.S. Department of Transportation recently issued draft recommendations that urge cities and counties to incorporate pipeline safety considerations into their building and planning codes.

Retired department executive Brigham McCown said new neighborhoods have sprung up over existing pipelines nationwide in recent decades, with little consideration given to the underground dangers.

“We really don’t have regulations or policies that dictate planning and zoning,” McCown said.

San Francisco Planning Director John Rahaim and Department of Building Inspection spokesman William Strawn said they were unaware of any provisions in The City’s planning or building codes requiring builders to consider pipeline safety risks, other than ensuring that lines are not damaged by underground construction-related activity.

Some safety advocates have pushed for cities to ban construction within certain distances of pipelines, but such setback requirements are not included in the recommendations from the task force, which includes builders, utility companies, safety advocates and others.

“Setbacks were discussed a lot by this group,” said Carl Weimer, task force member and nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust official. “But we couldn’t agree.”

Instead, the recommendations outline suggested rules for building within close range of pipelines.

Other moves have been afoot since the Sept. 9 San Bruno pipeline explosion, including a task force in San Francisco that was put together by Mayor Gavin Newsom. That group, which is being led by fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and City Administrator Edwin Lee, will likely consider any federal recommendations, mayoral spokesman Tony Winnicker said.

Last week, the San Francisco task force met with PG&E, which owns the line that exploded in San Bruno. The utility showed city officials maps of where the gas infrastructure runs through The City.

City officials walked away without copies of the map, but have requested that the utility company provide emergency response agencies with such documents, Hayes-White said.

“I’m much more reassured now than I was even a few hours ago,” Hayes-White told The San Francisco Examiner after the Tuesday meeting.

Other cities in the country, however, are further along in guidelines that involve pipelines.

Austin, Texas, is regarded as the American city with the most advanced pipeline-related building controls.

That city, dominated by the energy industry, outlaws construction of buildings that are difficult to evacuate, such as hospitals and jails, near transmission pipelines, according to Chuck Lesniak, Austin’s environmental policy program manager.

Buildings that could burn down easily, such as trailer homes, are banned near pipelines, according to Lesniak.

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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