For safety's sake

Gaps in PG&E pipeline info could carry implications for land-use decisions


A federal investigative hearing on the deadly Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno explosion triggered by the rupture of a high-pressure Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline was all about getting answers — but it has also sparked new questions.

For instance, why didn't the San Bruno Fire Department have maps of the 30-inch gas line running beneath the neighborhood where the blast destroyed 37 homes and killed eight people? Why did PG&E's records list that section of pipe as seamless when the federal investigation revealed that it actually consisted of shorter pieces of pipe, called pups, welded together? Why has PG&E been unable to produce records of close to 30 percent of its pipeline infrastructure, proving that the lines are in decent shape? And does the paperwork it has produced contain reliable information?

These shortcomings speak to a broader issue gaining attention as more fatal pipeline ruptures grab headlines. On a national scale, at least 59 percent of onshore gas transmission pipelines were installed before 1970, according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety, making most of the infrastructure a minimum of four decades old.

Pipelines everywhere are getting older, and in some cases, weaker. Yet there tends to be a lack of awareness about the risks associated with the subsurface transport of hazardous materials, and as the San Bruno disaster demonstrated, there is often a lack of communication between utilities, local governments, and property owners about minimizing the risks.

These gaps are especially apparent in the process of approving new development projects. Tried-and-true systems are in place for indicating to contractors where they should and shouldn't dig to avoid making direct contact with underground infrastructure, but that information seldom takes into account what condition a pipeline is in. The general assumption is that the pipeline operator (in this case, PG&E) is keeping up with maintenance, and that it's safe to dig. Yet with the gaping questions surrounding PG&E's infrastructure in the wake of the San Bruno blast, there's a new level of uncertainty.

Pipeline safety isn't just a problem for utilities and pipeline regulators to worry about, according to a report issued by Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance (PIPA), an initiative led by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which brought together more than 100 experts in the field. It should also be on local governments' radar when they're making decisions about land use. Yet in San Francisco, this level of awareness seems to be absent.

According to PIPA, "Changes in land use and new developments near transmission pipelines can create risks to communities and to the pipelines." The hefty report contains an exhaustive set of best practices for planning near pipelines, many specifically targeting local governments. Priority No. 1 for local planning departments should be to "obtain mapping data for all transmission pipelines within their areas of jurisdiction ... and show these pipelines on maps used for development planning." The report also suggests taking special precautions in areas spanning 660 feet on either side of a gas-transmission pipeline; creating systems of communication so information can be readily shared between local governments, utilities, and landowners; and identifying emergency contacts who can halt dangerous excavation activities in case something goes wrong.

The Guardian sent e-mail queries to the Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to find out if the city was adhering to any of the practices recommended by PIPA as the best ways to ensure safe planning near pipelines. Reached by phone, a spokesperson from Planning told the Guardian, "DBI is where you need to call."