Gas lines take covert routes

Pipelines carrying natural gas — much like the one that exploded in San Bruno last week — snake their way through heavily populated portions of San Francisco, but PG&E has a standing policy not to reveal where the lines run.

In the wake of the deadly pipeline explosion and conflagration in San Bruno last week, concerns have been raised about natural-gas transmission lines, especially those that run through dense urban areas.

A handful of natural-gas transmission pipelines, ranging in diameter from 16 to 36 inches, run through The City, including one in the Financial District and three others in neighborhoods southwest of Potrero Hill, according to the state Department of Conservation.

However, anyone wanting to know if one of those pipelines runs outside of their home or business may run into problems.
PG&E — the utility company whose 30-inch pipeline exploded, killing at least four people and destroying dozens of homes in the ensuing fire — has a policy to withhold information about the exact location of natural-gas transmission lines except on an as-needed basis, spokesman Brian Swanson said.

“We can’t reveal the exact location for safety and security reasons,” he said.

The primary exception is when a contractor needs to dig or excavate, at which point PG&E will “go out and mark the location inside the excavation area to prevent damage from occurring.”

The public also has no easy access to information about the maintenance or inspection records of the pipelines in their neighborhood, according to natural-gas experts.

But, utility-safety advocates say the policy may run against federal rules.

People often begin asking why they don’t know where the pipelines are in their neighborhood immediately after a major accident, said Carl Weimer, executive director of utility-safety advocate Pipeline Safety Trust.

“I’ve heard PG&E say that [it’s a security issue], and it’s kind of weird because federal code requires disclosure,” he said.

“Customers are looking out their windows and doors and wondering, ‘Do I have a compromised pipeline running near my house, and am I going to be the next victim?’” said Mindy Spatt, communications director for The Utilities Reform Network. “It’s up to PG&E to address customer concerns, and do so quickly.”

PG&E spokesman Swanson said he was not sure whether the company would amend its policy, but it would try to ameliorate the concerns of customers.

“We understand our customers have questions about pipelines, and we will try to address their concerns,” he said.

Moves toward safety are already afoot after the pipeline explosion.

The state has ordered PG&E to inspect all its natural-gas transmission lines.

In San Francisco on Friday, Mayor Gavin Newsom tasked the city administrator and the fire chief with leading a review of the utility-infrastructure safety.

Pipeline accidents have increased since 2002

Explosions and other accidents involving the aging network of natural-gas pipelines that crisscross the Bay Area — and nation — increased since federal lawmakers passed a 2002 safety bill.

The U.S. Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 rewrote the nation’s decades-old pipeline-safety rules, requiring energy companies to focus new attention on urban areas. It’s criticized, however, for a lack of pipeline-owner oversight.

Retired department executive Brigham McCown said new reporting requirements, population growth in areas riddled with pipelines and Hurricane Katrina contributed to the rise.

Locally, PG&E pipeline incidents have increased, figures from the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust show.

Other issues involving safety with PG&E have been raised.

“Safety at PG&E is a joke,” said PG&E gas mechanic Mike Wiseman, who filed a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging safety violations and retaliation for reporting violations in PG&E’s gas division. “If you speak up, you’re the bad guy.”

PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said safety is the company’s top priority and that there’s “no tolerance in this company for retaliation against an employee who raises safety concerns.” -John Upton

PG&E incidents

Year    Number
2002    1
2003    2
2004    1
2005    3
2006    6
2007    3
2008    2
2009    5
2010    10

Source: Pipeline Safety Trust

Money offered after pipe blast

On Monday, PG&E said it would give the city of San Bruno and residents $100 million to rebuild homes and infrastructure following Thursday’s natural-gas pipeline explosion.

An initial $3 million check was already given to the city, according to PG&E. The utility company will provide $15,000, $25,000 or $50,000 to homeowners depending on the extent of damage.

PG&E said residents are not being asked to waive any claims in order to receive these funds. City officials declined to comment on the donated money.

— Andrea Koskey

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