Gulp! Why You Should Be Nervous About a PG&E Gas Pipeline with History of Big Trouble That Runs Through Bernal Heights

Did you happen to catch this anxiety-generating bit of news last week regarding the safety of PG&E’s gas pipelines?  From the San Jose Mercury News:

More than a year after the San Bruno natural gas explosion, PG&E still lacks “a large percentage” of the information it needs to accurately assess its pipeline risks and hasn’t taken needed steps to inform the public about its gas lines, according to the National Transportation Safety Commission’s final report on the 2010 disaster released Monday.

The 153-page report went further than earlier NTSB statements by including a strong warning about PG&E’s limited understanding of what other dangers may lurk underground.

Noting that PG&E uses data in a computerized system to gauge the risk posed by its pipelines, the agency said it fears the system contains “a large percentage of assumed, unknown or erroneous information for the Line 132” — the one that erupted in San Bruno — “and likely its other transmission pipelines as well.”

In addition, the report — the board’s final statement on the San Bruno catastrophe and largely a repetition of previously released documents — scolded PG&E for its continued failure to sufficiently educate the public about its gas lines and the hazards they pose.

In other words, PG&E basically has no idea WTF is going on with its pipelines. Why is that an issue for Bernalwood? Because one of PG&E’s worrisome “other transmission pipelines” runs right through Bernal Heights:

The PG&E pipeline that caused in the San Bruno explosion, Line 132, does not run through Bernal Heights. Instead, Bernal is traversed by another pipeline, called Line 109.

The flow of gas within Line 109 runs south to north. As you can see, the line comes in from Alemany and then heads north via Folsom, with an odd dead-end spur that shoots east along Tompkins Ave. At the top of Bernal Hill it traces Bernal Heights Boulevard, before heading down Alabama to Precita and north via York.

According to a must-read article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Line 109 has a long list of safety concerns and many of the same vulnerabilities as Line 132.

Experts point to the totality of Line 109 problems as warning signs that the older, untested lines in PG&E’s system are fraught with potential risks.

In the case of Bernal Heights, these concerns are not at all theoretical. Line 109 has caused big big BIG problems here before, most notably in 1963, when a segment the intersection of Nevada and Cresent exploded. Part of it looked like this:

And like this:

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

A Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gas pipeline running up the Peninsula into San Francisco has a long history of cracked and poorly constructed welds and even exploded once – but it’s not the one that blew up in San Bruno last year.

The pipeline is known as Line 109, and it failed disastrously in 1963 in the Bernal Heights neighborhood in San Francisco. The blast injured nine firefighters and led to the heart-attack death of a battalion chief. […]

Line 109’s problems first came to everyone’s attention almost 50 years ago.

On Jan. 2, 1963, the transmission pipe sprang a leak under Alemany Boulevard in San Francisco. About 1,000 homes were evacuated as firefighters rushed in to help.

Before PG&E crews turned off the line, gas spread to a nearby home, which exploded. Two of the nine injured firefighters were critically hurt, and Battalion Chief Frank Lamey, 63, died of a heart attack.

One of those critically injured was Anthony Marelich Jr. In an interview last week, he said PG&E had left the line active during the evacuation to avoid cutting off thousands of other customers and believed the gas was safely venting into the atmosphere.

Instead, it was filling a house on Nevada Street. Marelich said he had been standing with several firefighters when the home blew up and a wall “landed on top of me.”

“It was instantaneous,” said Marelich, now 73. His face was crushed, and doctors gave him almost no chance to survive.

He was forced to retire the next year, having lost several teeth and his sense of smell. Surgeons had to wire his jaw back on.

“Safety, right now, is in the limelight because of San Bruno,” Marelich said, adding that he thinks PG&E should have paid a steep price for the 1963 blast, “but they never showed any blame for it.”

“What happened to me and what happened to those people down in San Bruno, it should never have happened,” Marelich said.

Put another way, here’s a question we all should ask: In light of the NTSB’s staggering revelations about PG&E’s incompetent management of its gas pipeline network, what are the company and City officials doing to make sure it doesn’t happen in Bernal Heights… again?

IMAGES: Pipeline maps, PG&E; 1963 photos, San Francisco Chronicle

21 thoughts on “Gulp! Why You Should Be Nervous About a PG&E Gas Pipeline with History of Big Trouble That Runs Through Bernal Heights

  1. Thanks for completely freaking me out! I live along the pipeline. I know there is a PG&E engineer that lives along the pipeline also, so I figured I wouldn’t panic as long as he didn’t. Hmmm….

  2. Bernalwood is frightening me today. A deadly pipeline just out my front door, and a murder scene out back. Yikes!

  3. I seem to remember the part running from the hilltop down Alabama and Precita was replaced in the 80’s. Too bad the Chron story doesn’t say where the non-replaced parts are.

  4. I’m confused, as I had read this information a while ago and was under the impression the line ran down Nevada, not Folsom. Thus the impact at Folsom and Crescent in 1963. I remember being particularly alarmed as I live one block from Nevada. Are you sure the map is correct? Was the line moved?

    • ack…meant “thus the impact at Nevada and Crescent” as mentioned in the article, not Folsom.

      • I double checked PG&E’s website, and the map is indeed correct that the line runs down Folsom. The previous map I saw must’ve been incorrect.

      • sounds perhaps like the Nevada + Crescent explosion was a consequence of disastrous miscalculation by PG&E — as the Chron piece describes:

        “Anthony Marelich Jr. […] said PG&E had left the line active during the evacuation to avoid cutting off thousands of other customers and believed the gas was safely venting into the atmosphere. Instead, it was filling a house on Nevada Street.”

        Maybe time for Bernalwood to secure the services of a physicist and or an engineer who can explain how a leak on Alemany can blow up a house near the top of the hill!

        A lot of good our chert-advantage does us if we’re literally undermined by bad gas lines

      • ooops —- the map reminds me that Crescent is right next to Alemany. Still, that’s 3 blocks from Folsom. What’s the physics of natural gas?

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  6. Thanks for giving us this information. I remember panicking a bit when I saw that line on some maps released after the San Bruno explosion since my kids go to school on Alemany. But then I thought I was just suffering from recency bias, freaking out about the most recent danger I’d heard about, and I forgot about it.

    Now, neighborhood activists, any suggestions for how to get PG&E’s attention on this? FWIW, I do see PG&E out checking what is presumably this line on Alemany these days — they’ve been on Alemany between roughly Silver and Ocean for a few weeks now.

    • That’s a very good question and I wish I knew the answer. What’s in it for them? The recent NTSB findings were pretty damning but they have no way to enforce any of their recommendations so it is pretty much the honor system with PG&E (and they do not have the greatest track record for that). It’s very expensive to do what is necessary so they may be weighing that against the costs of settling future lawsuits due to negligence (its not like anyone will get their day in court with the way court funding is going at the moment…). Cynical, I know, but…

  7. I hate to be picky, but it looks like that spur off Line 109 runs west along Tompkins, rather than east.

  8. PG&E hired a company called MEARS ( did a pipeline inspection in 2009, from the 100 block of Bernal Heights Blvd (near Bradford) near where that “Underground Pipeline” sign is, heading north/downhill to Esmerelda towards Alabama, and all the way down Alabama to Precita, turning East and go down Precita to Bryant. They did this by drilling holes in the street about every 20 feet. I believe they call this Cathodic Protection Inspection. I spoke with Mike West at PG&E about this in Feb of 2009, and he confirmed that they were doing an inspection on the pipeline.

    I was alerted to this by the surveying marks and the drilled holes, I’ll try and find the photos of it and post to the flickr group.

      • Thanks for asking for a summary and please post an update whether or not you receive a reply. This article about PG&E in SF Gate yesterday ( got me even more pissed off and scared about this. Trying to think about what we can do as influential citizens of Bernalwood.

  9. One more thing: Alabama street is already a major “right of way” for other utilities. There are several fiber optic lines going down Alabama (ATT, Qwest, MFN, Level 3 and CCSF/City of San Francisco’s fiber ring are all ones that have manhole covers up and down the street with their names on them). Many of the fiber lines go down the peninsula, meeting up with the Caltrain tracks and running alongside them.

    There is the major water main that was replace a couple years ago. And of course the big PG&E gas line.

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