San Francisco and CPUC are pointing fingers, not fixing pipes

We know there are at least 36 miles of old cast-iron pipeline under the streets of San Francisco being used to transport natural gas to customers. We know these pipelines are unsafe and need to be repaired. We know that in February 2011, an old cast-iron pipeline ruptured and exploded in Allentown, Pa. And we know from the September 2010 San Bruno blast the deadly damage a large explosion and fire can cause in a community.

What we do not know is why, decades after the safety shortcomings of cast-iron pipelines first became apparent, several agencies are standing around pointing fingers at one another instead of collaborating to make sure there is not an explosion in this seismically active area.

The issue re-emerged when the general counsel of the California Public Utilities Commission, the government agency tasked with overseeing and regulating utility companies, sent a letter to San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera just days after the San Bruno blast anniversary. The letter suggested that a city street-repaving moratorium is prohibiting PG&E from finishing the work of replacing several dozen miles’ worth of aging cast-iron pipelines.

“PG&E is prepared to complete this work, and indeed our safety staff have informed me that they would have done so by now,” general counsel Frank 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 appeared to be referring to the Department of Public Works’ excavation moratorium, which bans digging at about 3,000 road segments throughout The City.

But the reasons Lindh’s letter was sent — and the mystery behind it — is almost as troubling as the wording itself, which alluded to San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire as an example of why the pipelines need to be replaced.

Herrera fired back a response asking for evidence of where The City was blocking such work. PG&E seemed confused about what the CPUC was talking about, even noting that Lindh’s letter had incorrectly stated how many miles of pipeline still need replacing. And DPW Director Mohammed Nuru, in a letter to The San Francisco Examiner, said the department had never “denied or prohibited PG&E from performing urgently needed work.”

PG&E said it started replacing cast-iron pipelines in 1985 and has replaced 527 miles of gas lines here in San Francisco, including those in seismically sensitive areas. The 36 miles that it says remain are primarily short segments in the Glen Park, Outer Mission and Sunset neighborhoods, according to PG&E.

But 36 miles of dangerous pipeline are too many, and every department, agency and company that has a role in replacing those last stretches needs to be on the same page — which does not seem to be the case.

The City’s moratorium on excavation was put into place to ensure that utilities do their underground work at the same time that streets are repaved to save San Franciscans money and headaches. But the safety of San Franciscans trumps those valid concerns. Officials from The City, PG&E and the CPUC need to expedite replacement of the utility’s remaining cast-iron natural gas pipelines. Finger-pointing is not helpful.

California Public Utilities CommissionDennis HerreraeditorialsOpinionPG&E

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