Fiona Ma for State Assembly

PG&E, first responders develop pipe disclosure pilot program

Utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric has taken steps to share critical gas pipeline information with first responders in a pilot program starting in San Francisco and Alameda counties, the company confirmed yesterday.

While a consumer watchdog group praises the move, it also wonders why PG&E has not taken these steps previously.

Network, a nonprofit agency that monitors utility companies and advocates for consumers.“First responders should not have to beg for information,” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman with The Utility Reform

The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 already mandates this type of sharing, according to TURN.
“From our perspective, it is hard to understand why they wouldn’t share this already,” Spatt said.

After a legislative hearing and inquiries following the San Bruno explosion and fire of Sept. 9, 2010, it became apparent that local fire departments did not always have critical information on the location of natural gas pipes, according to the office of Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco/San Mateo.

First responders to the San Bruno tragedy operated under the assumption that a jetliner had crashed in the Glenview neighborhood for 30 minutes or more after the initial explosion because they could not get close enough to the epicenter of the fire due to the extreme heat and fast-spreading fire.

Ma helped facilitate the program with San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and PG&E to ensure collaboration between the utility company and local fire departments on gas pipeline location and safety. The Fremont Fire Department is also participating in the pilot program.

In October, PG&E unveiled a new program called Pipeline 2020 after the September explosion in San Bruno where a 30-inch natural gas pipeline exploded, killing eight and completely destroying 37 homes.

The Pipeline 2020 program objectives are to strengthen the utility’s natural gas transmission system through a combination of targeted investments, research and development, improved processes and procedures and tighter coordination with public agencies, according to PG&E.

“It is not a brand-new effort,” said PG&E spokesman Joe Molica. “We started this in October. We’ve also reached out to San Bruno to make it a pilot.”

The newest aspect of the program, Molica said, is the ability to share electronic maps that can be assessed by first responders remotely.

“We are working to enhance these partnerships,” Molica said.

The pilot program will allow for PG&E and first responders to work out the kinks and software glitches, Molica said.

“Firefighters on the front line need to know the whereabouts of potentially explosive pipes when responding to any emergency,” Ma wrote in a prepared statement. “While we strive to ensure that future accidents like the one last year never happen again, we are also working with PG&E to make sure that we are prepared to respond in the event future tragedies do happen.”

Locally, fire officials sought information related to the whereabouts of natural gas pipelines on the Peninsula going back almost five years. The inquiries were made to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety.

Fire officials wanted to know how big the pipes were, where they were located and how high the pressure was. The information was sought to help form mutual aid strategies in case of an emergency.

But the Office of Pipeline Safety only provided the general whereabouts of the transmission pipes with no real details, an anonymous fire official said.

As part of its Pipeline 2020 program, PG&E has committed to working more closely with first responders.

“I am pleased that PG&E has committed to enhancing their partnership with public safety agencies through their Pipeline 2020 program, specifically providing electronic versions of their utility infrastructure to first responders,” wrote San Francisco’s Fire Chief Hayes-White in a prepared statement.