Hearing About Haight Gas Leaks Turns Into Game of Hot Potato: Who’s to Blame?

A long train of stupid events pulled into its final station last night with an official postmortem on that infamous Haight Street public works project — the one whose five gas leaks stopped just short of destroying the historic corridor.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed and a few of her board colleagues called representatives from the various relevant parties to City Hall, partly to discuss how to avoid another Three Stooges routine in future infrastructure projects but also, seemingly, just to have everybody in one place for a good drubbing.

“I won‘t allow this to continue,” Breed said, reviewing the charges: five gas leaks and at least two sinkholes (Haight neighbors contend it was three), triggered by contractors who were supposed to replace aging water and sewer lines. The $13.7 million project kicked off last April and was planned to take a few weeks. It’s still unfinished.

[jump] It was a review course, since everyone in the chamber (and in the whole city) already knew perfectly well what happened, but the airing of grievances is an important part of this kind of public ritual/catharsis.

Synergy Project Management, the subcontractor whose workers actually did the damage, wasn’t on hand, since they were officially fired this week. (A motion to have them horsewhipped on top of it was dismissed.)

Instead, reps from PG&E, the Department of Public Works, the fire department, and the Public Utilities Commission for both the city and the state took turns answering the unlucky question: Who’s responsible for this?

For the most part, the answers added up to, “Is it just me, or is it hot in here?”

John Thomas, DPW’s construction project manager, pointed out that his department had no choice but to hire the contractor who put in the lowest bid — in this case, San Rafael-based Ghilotti Brothers, who then handed off the job to Synergy.

“We have procedures that work most of the time, but they aren’t [foolproof],” said Thomas. “I know that’s not what we want to hear, but…”

As DPW explains it, the current system actually encourages mediocre work, since the best way to win contracts is to work cheaply and just barely meet the minimum requirements. A “D+ contractor” effectively has a competitive advantage.

The night’s candor prize goes to California Public Utilites Commission gas and safety manager Ken Bruno. Why, Breed wanted to know, did the state not step in and investigate this rash of gas leaks? Bruno had a good answer: Nobody told them.

“We investigated the first one. There’s a report,” Bruno said. But his office only found out about the other leaks a few weeks ago. In fact, they only investigated the April leak because they heard about it on ABC7.

(He added, “I checked, and it looked like the others were mostly reported in Hoodline. Which I guess is a neighborhood blog?”)

Breed assumed Bruno was accusing PG&E of negligence, but no, he says the utility was perfectly in its right not to bother mentioning the repeated line busts. Maybe they should have called anyway, he conceded. “But that’s just my opinion.”

Supervisor Norman Yee asked (somewhat tentatively) whether it was possible to change the standards on what was a significant enough leak to require reporting.

“Sure. Anything’s possible,” Bruno said .

So now what? A few fixes were suggested, including a relief fund for merchants who lose business due to public works projects, and the (mildly bemused) suggestion that when gas leaks happen maybe the city itself ought to call the state and let them know.

DPW’s Thomas asked that his department be allowed to consider a contractor’s past performance when deciding minimum qualifications, although he admitted that Synergy has worked on big projects before, apparently without issue. (Aside from reports of worker and pedestrian safety snafus, as well as three lawsuits that, according to Breed, Synergy settled with the city.)

When I asked why they suddenly started the butterfingers routine, Thomas pointed out that when you hire someone, there’s no way of knowing which personnel they’ll put on the job. So even if we get what we think is a good contractor, we can’t be sure they won’t send in the dummy squad.

The city’s deal with Ghilotti Brothers stands, for better or worse, and GB is vetting replacement subcontractors to finally finish the job. Cross your fingers.

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