Jackie in the News
PG&E to give heads-up to people near big gas lines
The San Francisco Chronicle
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has agreed to send letters to thousands of customers telling them they live within 2,000 feet of a gas-transmission line, Rep. Jackie Speier said Thursday.
The Hillsborough Democrat, whose district includes the San Bruno neighborhood devastated when a PG&E transmission line exploded Sept. 9, said she met with utility President Chris Johns on Wednesday and that he had committed to notifying customers who are near transmission pipes.
Company spokesman Joe Molica confirmed Thursday night that PG&E would send the letters, saying the idea is to "make it easy for anyone to learn about pipelines in their area."
Johns also said PG&E will soon begin installing automatic shutoff valves on pipelines that cross earthquake faults, according to Speier. As many as a dozen of the valves will be placed on the Peninsula, she said.
If PG&E follows through, Speier said, "they become the gold standard for how to operate a utility moving forward, in terms of safety."
The subject of automatic shutoff valves came up repeatedly during three days of hearings into the blast this week by the National Transportation Safety Board, because PG&E had only manually operated valves on the San Bruno pipeline.
PG&E officials conceded that automatic valves could have shut the flow of gas to the rupture within 15 minutes, compared with the nearly hour and a half it took workers to reach the manual valves and close them.
The cost of automatic valves has been put at anywhere from $100,000 to $1.5 million each. Speier said she understands rates may go up for consumers.
"I'm one of those consumers," Speier said. "And you know what, if it means safety for my family and for my community, that is the price we have to pay."
She added, "No one should have to wait an hour and a half for the gas to be turned off to be able to fight a fire."
Both PG&E's decision on the valves and planned notification to residents living near transmission lines followed embarrassing revelations for the utility during the safety board's hearings.
PG&E officials had ruled out the widespread installation of automatic valves, based in part on a company engineer's 2006 memo asserting that most damage from transmission line ruptures takes place within 30 seconds. The engineer, Chih-Hung Lee Sr., testified Tuesday that he had based his conclusion on industry studies and ignored a federal study showing the valves had benefits.
On Wednesday, San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag testified that he hadn't known a gas-transmission line ran under his city until the pipe exploded. PG&E's public-notification measures on gas-safety tips also came in for criticism when an executive admitted that the company had recently mailed safety surveys to 15,000 customers and received just 20 replies.
Speier has sponsored legislation to require that all customers living within 2,000 feet of transmission lines be notified in letters.
Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the federal safety board, praised PG&E's actions, saying they were a welcome change from the company's "abysmal track record" in public-notification efforts.
"This is exactly the type of progress we could hope for at a hearing like this," Hersman said. "These are the direct benefits of having this conversation in the public eye."
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