The utility won't release its pipeline locations — even to the Fire Department — but we managed find the info
It's been nearly two weeks since the pipeline in San Bruno exploded and killed four people, injuring many more and destroying 37 homes. And it's left a lot of people in San Francisco wondering: could it happen here?
Of course it could. PG&E has more than 200 miles of major gas pipelines under the city streets that are scheduled to be replaced — and that means they're reaching the end of their useful life. Just like the pipe that blew up in San Bruno.
Are any running under your home or business? PG&E isn't going to tell you.
That's bad. "The public has a right to this information," City Attorney Dennis Herrera told us. And Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has introduced a resolution calling on PG&E to make the locations of its pipelines, electric lines, and other potentially parts of the company's infrastructure public.
But here's what worse: even the city's public safety departments — the ones that would have to respond to a catastrophic event involving a gas main break — don't know where those lines are.
"I'm still looking for that map myself," said Lt. Mindy Talmadge, a spokesperson for the Fire Department.
The city's Public Utilities Commission, which, among other things, digs its own trenches to install and repair water pipes, doesn't have the PG&E map. Neither does the the California PUC, which regulates PG&E.
It might also make sense for the City Planning Department to have the map; after all, zoning an area for the future development of dense housing that sits on top of an explosive gas main might be an issue. "People need to start holding PG&E accountable," Planning Commission member Christina Olague told us. "Why shouldn't PG&E release [the map] given the recent tragedy?"
PG&E insists that the exact location of the gas mains should remain secret because someone might want to use the information for a terrorist attack. But if the San Francisco Fire Department and Department of Emergency Services can't get the map of the pipelines, something is very wrong. Even Sup. Sean Elsbernd, who has been allied with PG&E against public power issues, agreed that "the public safety agencies should certainly have that information."
The Mirkarimi resolution urges PG&E "to cooperate with the city's request for infrastructure information." Mayor Gavin Newsom has already appointed the fire chief and city administrator to conduct a utility infrastructure safety review that would evaluate the location, age, and maintenance history of every pipeline underneath city streets.
Not every state allows utilities to keep this information secret. In both Washington and Texas, maps of underground pipelines are easily accessible, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Bellingham, Washington-based nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust. Texas even has an online system, he said.
But in California, PG&E keeps even essential safety agencies in the dark. If a fire came near where a PG&E pipeline was buried — or if an earthquake fractured some of the lines and gas started to leak — Talmadge said the San Francisco Fire Department wouldn't be able to do anything about the explosive gas except call PG&E. Only the private utility can shut off the gas, which is under high pressure in the main lines.
"We radio to our dispatch center and request PG&E to respond ... They would contact PG&E and have them respond," she explained.
The department doesn't prepare specifically for that sort of event. "We do not have a specific gas leak training ... it would be more of a hazardous material training," Talmadge said.