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PG&E mislabels high-risk pipe; angers East Palo Alto

By Joshua Adam Hicks | 7 Oct 2010

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East Palo Alto officials accused PG&E of neglecting their city after the utility mislabeled a high-risk pipe.

An East Palo Alto City Council member scolded PG&E last week, saying the utility’s mistake in identifying the location of a potential at-risk gas pipeline highlights a larger problem: lack of respect for the city.

Council member Peter Evans was not satisfied with a public apology by PG&E representative Jimmy Harris during the Sept. 27 City Council meeting. The utility said an honest miscalculation caused it to report that the pipeline is in Menlo Park when it’s actually in East Palo Alto. The two cities are neighbors.

East Palo Alto officials learned of the mistake through media reports.

“We’re seeing you now because you’ve failed any type of relationship with us,” Evans told Harris at the meeting. “You gave our community no respect, sir. No respect at all. And we don’t appreciate that. We want to see something other than just cutting us off when we don’t pay our bills. We want to see service.”

Evans also questioned why Harris, PG&E’s senior government-relations representative for five years, was making his first appearance before the council.

“Who’s been coming if you haven’t been coming?” Evans said. “Would you have come if that thing hadn’t blown up?”

After a Sept. 9 pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people and left a massive crater in a residential neighborhood, PG&E has been under pressure from cities and counties that want to know the exact locations of the utility’s underground network of lines.

At first, the utility did not release specific information, even to fire departments, citing security concerns. But at the request of local, state and federal officials, PG&E relented and made public the 100 natural gas pipelines it considers “highest priority.” That list included one in East Palo Alto, although the city did not learn of that until the mis-labeling incident came to light through media reports.

“We believe that we were ignored by PG&E – intentional or unintentional – but it is quite appalling to have that kind of information put in the media and not have any official in this city contacted,” said M. Gordon, East Palo Alto’s city manager.

PG&E told the Peninsula Press on Oct. 9 that the East Palo Alto pipeline was no longer on the Top 100 list, following an engineering review. “We feel confident it will continue to operate safely,” said Joe Molica, a spokesman for the utility.

Paul Moreno, also a PG&E spokesman, said the utility mislabeled the location of the line while trying to translate complex engineering information into a Top 100 list. “Unfortunately, when someone transferred the information, they thought the location was Menlo Park,” he said.

The slip up underscores questions about PG&E’s relationship with local governments.

Last week, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed told the “San Jose Mercury News” that he was “not satisfied” with the utility’s response to questions about the location of a Top 100 segment in North San Jose. The city was unsure whether that section of pipe was located within its boundaries, and PG&E would not provide an answer, again citing security reasons.

Campus leaders at Stanford University told the “Mercury News” that the utility had not answered questions about the condition of a 22-inch transmission main that was on the Top 100 list because of corrosion concerns.

PG&E placed segments of pipe on the list based on four criteria: potential for corrosion, ground movement, third-party construction damage, or problems with physical design and characteristics.

The segment previously in question in East Palo Alto is 18 feet long and buried beneath a primarily residential neighborhood in the vicinity of Donahoe Avenue and Dumbarton Street – near the Oakwood Market convenience store.

A Four Seasons hotel and Cesar Chavez Elementary School are roughly one mile away in different directions, and Ravenswood Shopping Center is within 1.5 miles.

A construction crew working on East Palo Alto’s “Safe Routes to Schools” project – which involves building new sidewalks, curbs, gutters and streets leading to local schools – was concerned  about hitting a gas pipe as they dug in the vicinity of the Top 100 pipe on Monday.

Nearby, a pipe labeled PG&E stuck out of the ground.

A foreman for the construction crew, who asked to remain anonymous, said USA had cleared his work site for digging. But he wanted additional assurance from PG&E.

“Needless to say, we’re all a little nervous,” he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the San Bruno explosion.

Molica said anyone who suspects a gas leak should leave the area immediately and call PG&E from a safe distance at (800) 743-1000.

“You don’t want any potential ignition sources in an area where you’re smelling gas,” he said. “You want to leave that area before you call.”

Signs of leaks include gas smells and dying vegetation.

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