EDITORIAL If you're worried about the safety of the natural gas mains running below San Francisco — and you should be — you might take a look at a city on the Peninsula, one about 22 miles south of the site of the gas explosion in San Bruno. Since 1927, the city of Palo Alto has been running its own gas and electric utility — and instead of worrying about pipelines blowing up, the city recently won an award for safety.
Palo Alto workers inspected every inch of every gas pipe in 2009, and the steel pipes are replaced every 37 years — well ahead of the rated lifetime of the material. Oh, and by the way: gas and electricity are way cheaper in Palo Alto.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the private utility that operates most of the pipelines underneath northern California, has a different approach. In the past, the company has been nailed for diverting ratepayer money from public safety and maintenance into executive salaries and profits. And the backlog of deferred pipeline maintenance (despite the fact that the company has been given rate hikes to pay for replacing old pipes) suggests that the pattern may be continuing.
That's yet another in the long line of reasons why San Francisco needs to replace the incompetent, bloated private company with a public utility system.
It's also the reason the city needs to be moving on every front to find out exactly where all of PG&E's hazardous infrastructure is.
PG&E, as we report in this issue, doesn't want anyone to know where the dangerous, aging gas mains run. Even the San Francisco Fire Department doesn't have the map. So if a fire breaks out a few feet away from a gas line that could explode at any minute, the first responders have no way to know. That's just crazy.
We've managed to piece together, from existing public records, a pretty good approximation of the secret PG&E map (see here), and it shows that some of the gas mains run right below densely populated urban neighborhoods. The company acknowledges that more than 200 miles of pipes in the city are due for replacement — but won't release the maintenance schedule or any information about when the various pipes are in line for upgrades.
That's an issue of basic public safety — and city officials shouldn't tolerate it for another moment.
PG&E says it's concerned about threats to the pipelines — but the real threat is to the public. If the residents of San Bruno who had been smelling gas — and San Bruno police and firefighters — knew that there was a 50-year-old pipeline carrying gas at 200 pounds per square inch underneath the residential area, they might have ordered an evacuation. That would have saved lives.
The California Public Utilities Commission can probably order PG&E to release its maps of all of its gas mains in the state, but the CPUC has never been terrribly good at regulating the utility and can't be counted on here. So the San Francisco mayor, Board of Supervisors, and city attorney need to act.
The board should, of course, pass Sup. Ross Mirkarimi's resolution calling on PG&E to cooperate with city officials on timely disclosure of the information. But the supervisors should be prepared to go further. They have the legal right to issue subpoenas, and if PG&E doesn't at least give the relevant maps to the Fire Department, the board should demand that PG&E's chief executive, Peter Darbee, show up at a public hearing and produce it. City Attorney Dennis Herrera also has the power, under limited circumstances, to issue subpoenas — and this certainly seems to qualify.
Meanwhile, the board should begin to hold hearings on the larger issue — could San Francisco run its own electric utility and a natural gas system too? Or should we just trust our safety to a company that can't seem to find a gas leak that blew up an entire neighborhood?