Bernal blows up

PG&E's unresponsiveness and history of sloppy recordkeeping raise concerns about construction near its pipelines

|
(21)
PG&E is ignoring a developer's requests for information about a gas pipeline.

rebecca@sfbg.com

When Herb Felsenfeld and his wife, Gail Newman, look out the window of the Bernal Heights home they've lived in for more than 30 years, they see a vacant hilly lot grown in with tall grass, stretching up in the direction of nearby Bernal Heights Park.

The surrounding area has become quite popular. Earlier this year, real estate firm Redfin crowned Bernal Heights the nation's No. 1 "hottest neighborhood," its desirability ranked using "a combination of big-data analysis and real-life human experience," according to the company blog.

There are plans to build two new single-family homes on the slope directly above them, causing a bit of a neighborhood stir. But one detail about this particular site — perched high atop Folsom Street on the eastern slope of Bernal Hill — has neighbors on edge.

Below the surface, extending up a 35 percent grade, is a natural gas pipeline owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Property records designate it as Line 109, and it traverses the Bernal Heights neighborhood from farther south, running up Folsom Street. Two orange-and-white striped markers stake out its trajectory uphill, with an orange sticker on the back proclaiming, "Warning: Gas Pipeline."

It's serviced the area for at least 30 years, perhaps much longer, qualifying it as an aging piece of infrastructure. Felsenfeld, Newman, and neighbor Deborah Gerson say they're worried that performing excavation on the slope for a road and new home foundations poses a safety threat.

Newman said she was especially perplexed by the San Francisco Planning Department's issuance of a waiver of an environmental impact review, which is routine for a project of this size, citing no unusual circumstances. "I'm like, wait a minute," she said. "There's a pipeline here."

One would think that any sort of risk would be eliminated by routine safety protocols. But it gets complicated when one considers that PG&E is under federal indictment for criminal negligence for its alleged failure to keep up with pipeline maintenance, due in part to sloppy recordkeeping. There may indeed be little risk involved with the new construction at this site — but then again, the neighbors' concerns raise questions about whether adequate measures are in place to guarantee safety in this and other situations.

The criminal charges facing PG&E that were filed March 31 stem from an investigation launched in the wake of a fatal 2010 explosion in San Bruno caused by a pipeline rupture, which killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood. The utility is fighting the charges in court and has reportedly invested $2.7 billion in shareholder dollars toward safety improvements since.

But according to the results of a regulatory audit on PG&E's assessment of its own pipeline records that was undertaken to set things straight after the tragic explosion, crucial pipeline information is still missing or flawed, as the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported.

"Given the San Bruno disaster and the recent media revelations about PG&E's pipes, we are wondering what information you have gathered on this subject," Felsenfeld wrote in a letter to one of the housing developers, Fabien Lannoye. "Where exactly is Pipeline No. 109? How deeply is No. 109 buried? What is Pipeline No. 109 composed of? How big in diameter is Pipeline 109? How/with what are the pipe seams welded?"

He sent the same set of questions to PG&E. So far, Felsenfeld hasn't received any answers. PG&E has also been stonewalling the developer's information requests.

Lannoye, who is building one of the two new houses, described the project as a two-story, single-family home where he hopes to live with his wife and two children. He said he understands the neighbors' concerns about safety, but also believes they are organizing in an effort to prevent him from moving forward.

Comments

Thank you Ms. Bowe for alerting your readers to this major problem in Bernal Heights. You make it clear what the issues are and why Bernal neighbors are concerned. Readers should know that there is a neighborhood community meeting about the proposed development with the Bernal Heights East Slope Design Review Board: Wednesday, May 28, 7:00 PM, Precita Neighborhood Center, 534 Precita Avenue. This will be a time to hear the developer respond to our many questions.

Posted by Guest: Herb Felsenfeld & Gail Newman on May. 21, 2014 @ 7:55 am

This is alarming! Given the history of these pipelines, it is outrageous that this project can move forward without a clear risk assessment. Professor Bea's expertise and common-sense warning should be heeded. Thank you Rebecca Bowe for shining a light on this critical public safety issue.

Posted by Guest Anna Richert on May. 21, 2014 @ 9:27 am

Thanks for posting this important article. Whether we live on or visit Bernal Heights or not, all SF residents need to be aware of the unfair planning process that can justify removing open space to provide huge houses for the wealthy. Don't be duped - this is not an answer to our housing shortage.

Posted by Guest on May. 21, 2014 @ 9:56 am

Thank you for reminding us that this is not about safety, but about NIMBY...

Posted by Richmondman on May. 21, 2014 @ 10:30 am

Private property does not exist to serve as either a public park or public open space.

If you and other people nearby would like to keep the land as open space and/or turn it into a public park, then you are quite welcome to dig into your own wallets and purchase the property and either donate it to the city to use as a park or set up a trust to maintain the property as open space. Similarly, the city is welcome to pay fair market value for the property and turn it into a public park or public open space. It seems either option would be a very easy solution to address your concerns. So, get out your checkbook and enjoy your new purchase!

Also, "this important article" has nothing to do with preserving open space. But, your comment does reveal that the alleged safety concerns are a diversionary tactic and intentionally misleading, whereas the real objective is to attempt to prevent individuals from developing their own property.

Posted by Chris on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

NIMBY is a word used when folks organize against homes or services for poor people. Not the case here. Plans are for $1.5 million homes (or more.) And FYI--luxury homes are already in my backyard. If Mr. Lannoye wants to live in Bernal, he can buy one.
This is an investment, that risks our safety.

I have live near the hill for 32 years, and walk the hill many times a week.
I trust Prof. Bea's assessment: NOT SAFE for building.

Posted by GuestDeborah G. on May. 21, 2014 @ 11:05 am

NIMBYism doesn't have to be about poor people, as we see in Bernal (and SF more generally) all the time. See the Bernalwood post on the interior lot on Cesar Chavez. And Google "NIMBY."

There may indeed be safety concerns about this pipeline, and PG&E should answer them. Avoiding calls from the neighbors, developer, and press does not make PG&E seem transparent and forthcoming or instill confidence.

But if there are safety concerns about Line 109, shouldn't all the neighbors be worried now, all the time? Shouldn't they have to disclose its risks to buyers when they sell their homes? The explosion in San Bruno came about because of corrosion, not because a contractor hit it. Why are neighbors only rallying to alert everyone of these severe dangers now?

Posted by Guest94110 on May. 22, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

Why now?
Because six hillside lots, for years characterized by the City as "undevelopable" because of the steepness of the grade, are about to be developed.

Without any environmental review.

Alongside a major PG&E gas transmission pipeline about which PG&E can't or won't provide information even to the developer.

The issue is SAFETY.

Posted by Guest Ann Lockett on May. 26, 2014 @ 9:16 am

concerns. Deborah is organizing against new homes but using the pipeline as cover. She gives safety advocates a bad name.

Posted by Guest on May. 22, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

I guess we bette tear down all those houses on Alabama street, and East of that location on Bernal Heights Blvd, because the gas line runs along there as well. It even runs by the children's playground at Precita Park!

That gas line didn't explode when SF Water's Bernal Heights Pipeline construction was being done in 2008.

Although there is a historical gas explosion caused by that pipeline; it was because a slow leak had built up in a house next to it rather than venting into the atmosphere. But simple things such as inexpensive gas detector alarms can solve that problem.

There are more risks of explosions by a leak collecting in the garages and basements of homes along BH Blvd and Alabama that from a construction site.

Posted by Guest on May. 23, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

This is a complicated issue. Please come by and take a look at the location.
It is about disruption and possible damage to on a steep hill with no street access. It is about potential disruption of a very fragile and dangerous area that could cause serious damage to the pipeline.

Posted by Guest Nana on May. 26, 2014 @ 6:14 am

We don't need gas pipelines.
There are now 9 cities in the world that are 100% solar & renewable powered.
If SF put solar panels on just 11% of the homes, they could harvest enough solar to run the whole city of SF, according to a study done by Stanford Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson.
And according to 3 other authors who have written books on how cities can become 100% solar powered by 2050. "Solar Economy" by Hermann Scheer.
The best way for SF to get rid of gas pipes, is if we put a solar payment policy on the ballot that requires PG&E to pay homeowners $0..49 kwh for feeding solar onto the grid.
This is how 69 nations around the world are eliminating gas, oil & coal. The world is rapidly going to 100% solar, while sunny California is still too stoned to figure out how to put up solar.

Remember, it was not the 1906 quake that burned down SF.
It was the fact that PG&E laid new gas pipes along Market St. in 1904.
There was no shut-off valves.

Posted by Paul Kangas on May. 22, 2014 @ 6:54 am

You give solar advocates a bad name.

Posted by Guest on May. 22, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

According to the historical articles on SF Museum, http://www.sfmuseum.org/1906/gas.html -- the gas mains were shut off. There may not have been automatic, seismic valves, but the gas supply was quickly shut off.

Posted by Guest on May. 23, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

PREAKNESS PLUS DOG SHOW...PG&E DUG UP GAS PIPE UNDER SPEED BUMP, COVERED WITH ASPHALT AND STEEL PLATE (6 INCHES OFF GROUND) ALL CARS HAD TO DRIVE ON AND OVER. NO SIGNS....NO PRECAUTIONS, I HAD MY OIL PAN STRIPPED. IF YOU WERE AT THE FAIRGROUNDS AND AT THE RACE AND RECEIVED CAR DAMAGE LET ME KNOW. MY CAR IS STILL IN THE SHOP. PG&e HAS TAKEN FULL RESPONSIBILITY. I FORCED THEM SEVERAL DAYS LATER TO CLOSE THE ROAD AND PUT UP SIGNS. THE GAS LINE APPARENTLY HAS BEEN REPAIRED, BUT NOT THE ROAD. CHECK YOUR TIRES AND FRONT END OF YOUR CAR. ritalkoester21@gmail.com WHEN GOOD THINGS HAPPEN YOU TELL FOLKS WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN YOU TELL EVERYONE. ANY SUGGESTIONS? tHANKS, lOUISE

Posted by Guest Louise Koester on May. 23, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

Stop writing in all caps.

Posted by Chromefields on May. 27, 2014 @ 8:54 am

I'd be curious to see the full text of Professor Bea's email, and the email he is responding to.

Considering that the closest thing to facts in this entire article was Bea's response, the full context is pretty relevant.

There were a few recent arguably-mischaracterized quotes from a professor here (she wrote a comment at the bottom of the car sharing article to provide some "context"), so a repeat wouldn't be completely surprising, nor would it be surprising if the original query were somewhat one-sided.

Posted by James on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

The Bay Guardian wasn't able to get a response from PG&E, but the Bernalwood blog was. One gets a fuller picture than only interviewing the neighbors who object to the project:
http://bernalwood.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/if-two-homes-are-built-on-thi...

Posted by Dan on May. 27, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

Now THAT is journalism!

Posted by James on May. 27, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

It is a truly amazing post! It is very helpful with all of your valuable information for every people. I like this very much, excellent post!

Please Visit
http://www.jacketswear.com/products/Caroline-Channing-2-Broke-Girls-Jack...

Posted by Linda James on Aug. 05, 2014 @ 12:44 am

The way of your writing is excellent to convince others. Such a detailed able to study thoroughly in your publishing articles. I consider that just awesome!

Please Visit:
http://www.jacketsdesire.com/

Posted by Rita Alex on Aug. 13, 2014 @ 1:06 am

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.