Scrutiny of PG&E grows after pipeline work

By Martin Ricard

Even while PG&E ramps up its efforts to inspect pipelines, some question how forthcoming the utility is with its information.

In a grassy area just beyond the city limits near the Belle Air neighborhood, a lone pole with a red- and white- striped sign on it has a warning message: "Gas Pipeline."

That warning message never meant much before to the row of homes on Seventh Avenue that sit about 15 feet away from the pole and the pipeline underneath that it cautions against.

But that sign's warning has become more of a concern in the last few weeks than it had ever been before when several residents in November noticed a PG&E crew doing some excavation work in the area. One resident saw PG&E whisk away what looked like a large section of pipeline.

It turns out that PG&E was indeed working on a pipeline-Line 101, a gas transmission line similar to the one that exploded on Sept. 9 in the Crestmoor neighborhood-and did have to remove a section of pipe to inspect a possible problem recognized with the natural gas line.

That's not what concerns Robert Riechel the most.

After the Sept. 9 explosion, Riechel said, what concerns him is how forthcoming Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is with the city and residents when it comes to operating and maintaining the pipelines that run through the city, especially since it is now known that there are high-pressured natural gas transmission lines that sit so close to people's homes.

"They're not as open proactively with the city of San Bruno," said Riechel, who lives in the neighborhood. "They're somewhat taking the position that, 'If someone asks then we'll tell them.'"

Ever since the fire, PG&E has been under scrutiny to do more to ensure the safety of its pipeline system. Therefore, while the investigation continues into what caused the explosion, the utility has been ramping up the inspections of the pipelines throughout its system.

PG&E's Oct. 25 report to the California Public Utilities Commission outlining the results of a survey of its Bay Area pipelines showed a number of fixes that needed to be made, including 300 manual valves that needed to be replaced and a number of potential hazardous leaks in need of immediate repair.

The report said PG&E didn't find any problems with its three Peninsula gas transmission lines, which include Line 132 and Line 101. However, a possible concern was raised with Line 101 because an evaluation showed there might have been contact between the gas transmission line and the casing, a larger surrounding pipe. The report didn't specify where that issue needed to be addressed on the pipeline.

It wasn't until PG&E on Nov. 12 began its excavation work near the 20-inch pipeline located in the San Francisco International Airport-maintained wetlands area near Belle Air that many of the residents realized that they too lived near a gas transmission line.

Several residents, including Riechel and Alice Barnes, became suspicious when they later learned that PG&E was inspecting the casing on Line 101 near their homes without telling them beforehand.

"Without telling neighbors, and apparently city officials, PG&E went about working on the pipe but never seemed to get its story straight," Barnes wrote on her website San Bruno B.A.R.T. "Either they were testing the pipe to see if there was any damage, or they were repairing it, or they were doing something completely different. Who knows?"

Even City Manager Connie Jackson became concerned about PG&E's lack of communication, and she penned her concerns to the utility.

"I understand that this work is being conducted in an area that is outside the jurisdiction limits of the City of San Bruno," Jackson wrote. "While that may be the case, I cannot emphasize enough the legitimate concern that San Bruno residents are experiencing...about issues related to pipeline safety.

"Line 101 runs through a wet area in a location that is very close to residential properties in our community," she continued. "At the minimum, these two conditions create a justified and reasonable concern."

PG&E sent a letter to residents in the neighborhood on Nov. 15 informing them of the excavation work and explaining that they would be inspecting the casing along the transmission line.

So what did PG&E find?

When the crew inspected the pipe, said PG&E spokeswoman Katie Romans, they found that the steel casing around the pipe actually was making contact with the transmission line, causing interference with the operation of the pipeline's cathodic protective system that helps keep corrosion away.

Casing is used on pipelines that go under highways, and using it allows the pipeline to be easily removed if needed without causing any disruptions to the roadway. While the casing-installed 4 inches surrounding Line 101-is required by Caltrans, some experts believe the use of casing is a practice becoming obsolete.

No external corrosion was found on that section of Line 101, Romans said. But she confirmed that a 7-foot section of the casing was taken away.

"That's what residents were probably seeing," Romans said.

To date, however, that information hasn't been shared directly with the residents.

So Riechel has taken it upon himself to nag PG&E so that he can keep the rest of his neighbors informed.

He recently organized a meeting on the same grassy area by the pipeline warning sign near his home with state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, Jackson and representatives from PG&E and Congresswoman Jackie Speier's office to try to get some direct answers.

Since then, he continues to ask questions about the pipeline and most seem to get addressed.

But he still wonders: If someone hadn't asked, would PG&E have told anyone?

Copyright ©2010 San Bruno Patch. Published 12/03/2010.