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.
The remarkable thing is that much of the data the city doesn’t have — and PG&E won’t give up — can be pulled together from publicly accessible data. The major news media, particularly The Bay Citizen, have been pursuing the story and have run pieces of the map. Several newspapers and websites have published rough maps outlining where the major underground pipes are.
But as far as we know, nobody’s done a full-scale look at what the existing public records show.
Using information that the U.S. Department of Transportation has put on the Web, we’ve managed to put together a pretty good approximation of the secret map PG&E doesn’t want you to see.
We took a map from the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and layered it over a map of San Francisco. The maps of the southeast part of the city are more accurate; the information on gas mains going through the north and west side of town are sketchier. But the lines appear to run parallel to major streets, and we’ve put together a guide that at the very least can tell you if there’s a potentially explosive gas line in your neighborhood — and maybe even under your street.
Obviously, every house or business that has natural gas service — and that’s most of San Francisco — is hooked up to a gas pipe, and those feeder pipes run under almost every street. But the gas in those lines is under much lower pressure than the gas in the 30-inch main lines shown on this map, where pressure can reach 200 pounds per square inch. It was a main pipe that blew up under San Bruno.
It’s not surprising that the southeast — traditionally the dumping ground for dangerous and toxic materials — would have the most gas mains, and the most running through residential areas. One line, for example, snakes up Ray Street and jogs over to Delta Street on the edge of McLaren Park and near a playground. It continues under Hamilton and Felton streets, under the Highway 280 and onto Thornton Street before heading into the more industrial areas near Evans Avenue.
Another main line goes under the south side of Bernal Heights, running below Banks Street, around the park, then down Alabama Street to Precita Street, where it connects with 25th Street. That line then heads to Potrero Hill, where it follows Rhode Island Street to 20th Street.
Research assistance by Nichole Dial.