City councilman Darryl Moore addresses residents about PG&E's pipelines

Lula Greene has lived in her house on 66th Street for 24 years, but she wasn’t aware until March that her home sits near a major gas pipeline.

That’s when PG&E, following a new law created in response to the deadly 2010 San Bruno explosion, mailed notices to hundreds of Berkeley residents telling them of their proximity to the line.

The information was worrisome enough to bring Greene and others to a community meeting at Rosa Parks Elementary School Tuesday night organized by City councilmembers Darryl Moore and Max Anderson.

“I got the annual report and I thought I should come,” said Greene as she sat in a folding chair before the meeting began. “I want to know what’s running through our neighborhood and what’s the state of what’s running through our neighborhood.”

City officials invited representatives from PG&E to come and explain the location of the gas transmission lines running through the city – and talk about what steps have been taken to ensure they won’t rupture like the line in San Bruno did, killing eight people and destroying a neighborhood.

“PG&E is trying to buff its image,” said Anderson. “I think it’s important that people have confidence in the gas lines that permeate the community.”

PGE's gas transmission line map. The blue lines are the pipelines

Moore’s office had printed out a huge map of the region, which showed that a major gas transmission line runs along Seventh Street. There are also distribution lines that go up Allston Way and Russell Street. (To see PG&E’s interactive map, click here.)

The line running along most of Seventh Street was installed in 1986, and varies in size from 24 to 30 inches in diameter, according to Richard Pon, a PG&E customer outreach specialist. Gas runs through the line at 130 to 140 pounds per square inch, which is considerably lower pressure than the pipeline that exploded in San Bruno, he said. The distribution lines running up Allston Way and Russell Street are smaller than the main line, and are slightly less pressurized.

There is a stretch of pipeline running through Berkeley for which PG&E has much less information, said Pon. That is a line that goes from Seventh and Heinz streets south to Hollis Street and the Emeryville border, a distance of about ¼ of a mile. (It continues south into Oakland.) PG&E’s records on this line are sparse, just as they were on the San Bruno line that exploded, said Pon. The utility knows the line was installed in the late 1950s or early 1960s, he said.

PG&E started hydrostatic testing a three-mile section of that section of the pipeline two weeks ago, said Pon. Essentially that means filling the pipeline with water and cranking up the pressure to see if there are any vulnerable spots. No problems have yet been found, he said. The tests should take about two months.

PG&E crews are hydro-testing a three-mile stretch of pipeline. Crews have excavated the line at Seventh and Heinz in Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the San Bruno rupture and determined it was caused by 54 years of bad management by PG&E, recommended that all pipelines be tested by pumping them full of water at high pressure. PG&E has itself proposed a $2.2 billion program to modernize, inspect and repair its 5,786 miles of pipe. The utility wants customers to pay for the upgrades, which would translate into a $1.97 monthly increase of customers’ bills, according to Tom Guarino, a PG&E public affairs officer.

In a normal year, PG&E does hydrostatic testing on five to 10 miles of pipeline, said Pon. This year it has already tested 152 miles of pipe.

“We’re reacting to San Bruno,” said Pon. “We’re hydro-testing our lines. Our distribution system is next. There are a lot of things we are doing. We were doing some of it before but we are doing ten times as much now. There are a lot of things we are doing to make this the safest system possible.”

When the pipeline exploded in San Bruno, it took utility officials 95 minutes to turn off the gas. If there were a similar explosion in the East Bay, it would probably take about an hour before the gas was shut off, said Don Jones, a supervisor in PG&E’s transmission department. While there is a rupture control valve on the Carquinez Bridge and a number of manual shut off valves running along the line, it would take time for the gas in the line to dissipate.

“It takes a while to get it out,” said Jones. “It’s going to burn for a while.”

That is one reason Berkeley recommends that all homeowners install an automatic shut-off valve in their home gas lines, said Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong. Emergency response personnel also know where there are manual shut off valves for PG&E’s lines, he said.

“If you smell gas and you think you are in danger, the prudent thing is to evacuate,” said Dong.

A crack in a transmission line would produce a high pitched noise that could be heard from 10 blocks away, said Guarino.

PG&E has a rigorous maintenance schedule to examine the lines for corrosion and slippage from erosion, said Jones. It sends planes to check the lines by air, as well as maintenance crews. PG&E also sends cameras through some pipes to look for cracks, as well as using x-rays to check welds, said Pon.

Shut-off valves are inspected every year to 15 months, said Jones.

The presentation by PG&E officials seemed to inform residents, but didn’t necessarily reassure them.

“I am a little concerned,” said one man. “What goes on in one part of the company goes on in another (part of the company). Something was going on in San Bruno. The same sort of oversights and mistakes they made there, might be made here. That’s a big concern to us all.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...