Castro merchants say PG&E mishandled gas leak

In the early afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 21, Cliff's Variety manager Terry Asten noticed construction workers sprinting away from the front of her Castro District store screaming "Run!"

Next, "I heard a loud whooshing," Asten says. "It was so loud you could hear it from Church and Market," three-quarters of a mile away.

Workers for San Francisco firm NTK Construction had accidentally punctured a gas main in front of the store. Such accidents are not unusual: Last year there were 84 so-called third-party dig-ins into PG&E's San Francisco facilities, and a total of 1,905 in the company's Northern California system. But for merchants and residents who evacuated the neighborhood for a good part of the day, the event was horrifying, evoking fresh memories of the Sept. 9 gas explosion in San Bruno. They felt confused watching PG&E employees labor slowly with Neolithic-era devices known as hand shovels to dig to the pipe and crimp off the gas flow. Merchants became downright infuriated during the ensuing five weeks, as they began to think PG&E was failing to help them recoup money from sales lost during the evacuation.

The Oct. 21 gas leak was not connected to the San Bruno disaster, which killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes. But both incidents exposed intractable failures at the very heart of America's regulated monopoly system of providing utilities.

Where companies that aren't monopolies might spend their profits on technology and service upgrades, utilities like PG&E retain attorneys and lobbyists to confront regulators, politicians, and voters. Even if California attempted to infuse more competition into local gas markets, as other states have done, the pipes themselves would likely remain in the hands of the monopolists. And "you'd still probably have PG&E sitting there pissing people off," says Harvard Kennedy School economist Joseph Kalt, an authority on energy markets.

Notwithstanding, at a Dec. 1 presentation to investors, PG&E officials said the San Bruno disaster has caused the company to reconsider how it does business. They proposed a Pipeline 2020 Initiative to "explore industry modernization, improve pipeline management practices, and enhance coordination with public agencies."

What PG&E's pronouncements didn't directly address was just how primitive pipeline networks run by America's gas utilities are now, and how awful PG&E's service to its customers seems to be when understood in the context of the pre-Halloween gas leak in the Castro.

After Asten saw the construction workers running past her store at 12:48 p.m., the Castro began to look like a disaster zone — even though the pipe was dispersing gas into open air, meaning there was little chance of an explosion.

Several Muni bus drivers emptied their vehicles and went to work directing traffic. "They're the unsung heroes," Asten says.

Records show that 12 firefighters arrived on the scene at 12:54 and began to direct traffic; six minutes later, several police squad cars arrived.

Patrick Batt, owner of Auto Erotica around the corner on 18th Street, got a call from his friend, SFPD Sgt. Chuck Limbert, who had seen coverage of the incident on TV.

"I'd heard the rushing of gas for quite some time," Batt recalls, "but I'd assumed it was part of the construction work." PG&E spokesman Joe Molica says the company was notified of the incident at 1:45 p.m., and a crew arrived soon after. The PG&E workers encountered a task more complicated than you might imagine shutting off flow to a gas pipe would be: There was no knob to twist. The valve nearest the leak controlled flow to 50 businesses. Shutting off all of them would mean days spent individually restoring service. So employees instead dug into the street with hand shovels, because a jackhammer's spark might ignite the gas. Once they reached the source of the leak, they used clamps to pinch the pipe shut.

There are automatic valves that close when pressure declines owing to leaks. But utility companies nationwide have resisted proposals that such valves be required at businesses or apartment buildings.

At 3:10 p.m., workers had lowered the pinching device onto the pipe, plugging the leak and allowing Castro Street between 17th and 18th streets to be reopened to traffic. Molica said that utility representatives visited business owners afterward to see whether they had any questions about safety, or about making claims for lost revenue.

Asten, however, calls this assertion "bullshit." She said that when she called a PG&E representative, he told her that she could file a claim for the $12,000 she estimated the evacuation had cost her, but that it would probably be rejected.

Merchant irritation turned into angry confrontation at the subsequent meeting of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro.

"This has been handled poorly. PG&E hadn't reached out to anybody," Batt recalls. "I said PG&E should come to the merchants' meeting. And all they did was a song and dance, a dog-and-pony show."

Responsibility for the incident is difficult to pin down because all parties seem to have engaged in a round of finger-pointing. Molica said NTK Construction was responsible for any merchant losses. An NTK project manager told a police officer at the scene that the company had been hired by the Department of Public Works to install underground electricity conduit. A DPW spokespersoman said it was an SF Muni project. The NTK manager said he had contacted Underground Service Alert of Northern California, a nonprofit that keeps track of the maze of cables and pipelines. But he said that organization failed to contact PG&E to mark the gas line prior to excavation. But representatives at Underground Service Alert, DPW, and Muni were unable by press time to explain who was responsible for the problem.

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