San Bruno, other Peninsula schools encouraged by pipeline work notification under new legislation

Due to its close proximity to the San Bruno neighborhood that was destroyed by the 2010 PG&E natural-gas pipeline explosion, John Muir Elementary School always receives a “heads up” from the utility company whenever it's doing work in the area or releasing gas into the air from its nearby Skyline Boulevard facility, according to Principal Frances Dunleavy.

But thanks to new legislation recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, all schools across California will now receive similar consideration. Assembly Bill 1937 requires utility companies to provide three days' notice prior to performing nonemergency pipeline maintenance within 500 feet of any school or hospital.

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, said he authored the bill because many of the state's schools and hospitals are adjacent to natural-gas pipelines, and the lack of a reporting requirement has put those facilities at risk.

While Gordon doesn't envision schools temporarily closing or hospitals moving patients as a precaution after receiving notice of upcoming pipeline work, he said the organizations would be on alert and more able to respond quickly if an emergency situation developed.

“The other day we had this earthquake in Napa, and it was a reminder that preparation does an awful lot toward mitigating potential problems,” said Gordon, referring to the magnitude-6.0 temblor that struck the renowned Wine Country.

Some other San Bruno schools paying close attention to pipeline-safety issues include Capuchino High School and Peninsula Alternative High School, both part of the San Mateo Union High School District. District spokeswoman Sheri Costa-Batis said that in addition to improved safety, the district's schools might also receive logistical benefits from the newly mandated notifications. Knowing about pipeline work three days in advance will give school administrators time to request schedule changes from PG&E if they expect work start times to interfere with morning student drop-offs, and will also allow schools to notify parents about potential parking and traffic issues, Costa-Batis noted.

The Jefferson Elementary School District, which serves Daly City and Colma, will also take advantage of the notifications to help keep students safe and minimize parking and traffic impacts on parents, according to district Superintendent Bernie Vidales. School personnel plan to be extravigilant for sounds or smells that could indicate potential safety hazards, and administrators will review emergency response plans with teachers in light of the new process, Vidales said.

The new legislation — which received broad bipartisan support — was cheered by Vidales, although he expressed mild skepticism about lawmakers' motives and criticized what he says was a lack of oversight that contributed to pipeline-safety issues.

“My personal opinion is that legislators are trying to appear to address the lack of oversight and accountability utility companies have enjoyed that resulted in disasters like San Bruno,” Vidales said. “That being said, safety is a high priority and I hope to get lots of notices to let us know utility companies are serious about regular maintenance.”

Assembly Bill 1937 is among a number of new laws, procedural changes and fines that have arisen in the years following the deadly San Bruno pipeline blast. PG&E recently pleaded not guilty to all 28 counts charged in an indictment, including obstruction of justice, in connection with the case.

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