Evoking the firestorm that devoured San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, a state regulator suggested Thursday that replacement of old cast-iron natural gas lines is being halted by city street-paving guidelines, leaving 43 miles of dangerously unsafe pipes underground.
California Public Utilities Commission General Counsel Frank Lindh sent an incendiary letter asking City Attorney Dennis Herrera to instruct the Department of Public Works “to stand down” and let the utility finish its work.
“PG&E is prepared to complete this work, and indeed our safety staff have informed me that they would have done so by now,” Lindh wrote. “The utility company, however, has been barred by the city’s Department of Public Works from completing this important safety project, due to a city street paving ordinance.”
The letter was an apparent reference to DPW’s extensive excavation moratorium, which prohibits underground street work on about 3,000 road segments throughout The City. The agency limits such work to eliminate unnecessary repaving, but Lindh’s letter suggested that the policy threatens San Franciscans.
“In April 1906, The City of San Francisco was substantially destroyed in a catastrophic fire triggered by ruptured gas lines after a massive earthquake,” Lindh wrote. “San Francisco faces a clear and present danger from cast iron pipes of the kind that ruptured and exploded in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in February 2011.”
On Feb. 9, 2011, a leaky 83-year-old gas pipeline exploded in that city, killing five people and destroying eight houses. Closer to home in San Bruno, a PG&E gas transmission line explosion in 2010 killed eight people and torched the Crestmoor neighborhood.
PG&E already has replaced 527 miles of gas lines here, starting in seismically sensitive areas, spokesman Joe Molica said. Only 36 miles more, not 43, need replacing, he added. They’re primarily short segments in Glen Park, the Outer Mission and parts of the Sunset.
The adversarial relationship depicted by Lindh conflicted with Molica’s assessment.
“I can’t speculate as to why they sent this letter to The City,” Molica said. “We have an excellent relationship with DPW.”
Herrera’s terse, three-paragraph response to Lindh did not respond to his demand to change current repaving policies, which he said state and federal law permit. Instead, it asked for specific instances of noncooperation.
“To assist me in identifying and addressing these alleged obstacles, I would appreciate additional information regarding specific instances in which San Francisco’s Department of Public Works has actually prohibited PG&E for performing this urgently needed work,” Herrera wrote.
Relations between Herrera and the CPUC have been strained for years. In 2011, in the wake of the San Bruno incident, he threatened to sue the agency for failing to adequately oversee PG&E.
“It has become increasingly obvious that blame must be shared by regulators who were either asleep at the switch or too cozy with the industry they’re supposed to regulate,” Herrera said at the time.
CPUC spokesman Andrew Kotch said Lindh’s letter was sent in response to questions raised by commission President Michael Peevey about the status of a decadeslong pipeline replacement effort. Molica said PG&E first began replacing the cast-iron pipes in 1985.