Are Local Gas Lines Safe?
Friday, September 17, 2010
Could a large gas pipeline explosion like what occurred in San Bruno, Calif. happen here in San Diego?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today we’ll look at whether San Diego is in danger of a natural gas explosion like last week’s deadly San Bruno destruction from a ruptured gas line, why supervisors didn’t fund more firefighters for the two-year-old county fire agency, and how the McMillin Company justifies tearing down a community meeting center at Liberty Station to build a hotel. The editors with me are John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint. Good morning, John. Good to see you again.
JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Good morning, Gloria.
PENNER: Miriam Raftery, editor of East County Magazine. Welcome back from the east county, Miriam.
MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, East County Magazine): Thank you, Gloria.
PENNER: And Ricky Young, watchdog editor for the U-T. And, Ricky, it’s nice to know that you’re watching over us.
RICKY YOUNG (Watchdog Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Thank you, Gloria. It’s nice to do that.
PENNER: Our phone number is 1-888-895-5727. Lots of good stuff to talk about this morning. That’s 895-KPBS. Well, last week there was a ruptured natural gas line in San Bruno in the hills just south of San Francisco. This massive gas explosion destroyed people and buildings, and rattled nerves in San Diego. Two days later, a gas line ruptured in East County near El Cajon. Two weeks ago, a natural gas line in North Park was broken by a construction crew. This week, a truck hit a gas meter in Mira Mesa and gas leaked into some homes. And yesterday, a break was reported in La Jolla. So, John, how common are natural gas leak incidents in San Diego?
WARREN: Well, the leaks are pretty common in the sense that they do happen. I think since San Bruno everyone is on high alert and people are paying closer attention. But San Diego supposedly has one of the better reputations and records in terms of SDG&E’s maintenance of our gas lines. A lot of people don’t know that we have some 250 miles of gas lines and transmission lines and 8,300 lines through neighborhoods in San Diego County. And SDG&E maintains an 811 alert number. And UCAN, ironically, has accused SG&E (sic) of what it calls goldplating. That is making unnecessary checks in terms of the gas lines, and saying that they overemphasize maintenance.
PENNER: Why? Why would they do that?
WARREN: Well, they think they can perhaps pad the bills or say they’re spending more than absolutely necessary. But, of course, after San Bruno the public’s attitude will be that there’s no such thing as too much precaution in terms of the seriousness of what could happen. And most of the breaks occur here based on construction people dealing in the wrong – digging in the wrong places. Gas line breaks are not as common as waterline breaks because the water is a corrosion factor in terms of those breakages that occur. And so if you’re going to dig, they require people to mark, they come out, they check, they walk. They have inspectors throughout the county, both rural and urban populated areas checking this on a continuous basis.
PENNER: Okay, well you heard what John said—I’m going to speak to my listeners now—that people after the San Bruno explosion are going to say, well, there’s no such thing as being too careful even if it does pad the bottom line for San Diego Gas & Electric. Do you agree? Do you think that there’s no such thing as being too careful? Which, of course, brings us to the question, and I’ll ask this of you, Ricky. Let me give our number first, 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Ricky, I guess it comes down to just how dangerous are these gas lines?
YOUNG: Well, they can obviously be quite dangerous, and they put a lot of effort into fixing these things up. In the San Bruno case, they had money to do $5 million worth of upgrades on the section of pipe in question and didn’t do the upgrades and then came back and asked for another $5 million, some sort of Ponzi scheme or something. And so, you know, they have to do, I guess, a kind of triage where they spend the money where they think it’s most needed but, you know, it raises a lot of questions about who’s watching and whether they’re fixing what they need to and spending the money the right way. As John mentioned, down here, we seem to be keeping a better – staying on top of it a little more but we’re going to be looking at some records and things on that to – just to make sure.
PENNER: You are, the Watchdog is going to be looking at it.
YOUNG: The very one, yes.
YOUNG: The U-T.
PENNER: Well, there is kind of a watchdog already, isn’t there, Miriam? John mentioned UCAN, the Utility Consumers Action Network and Michael Shames is all over the place. We always hear him quoted. He’s sort of the head of the whole thing. Is UCAN, can that be considered a watchdog over SDG&E?
RAFTERY: Well, they certainly are a watchdog group but we also have the Public Utility Commission, which really should be performing the same sort of watchdog services. But, interestingly enough, there’s a proposal before the PUC right now that the utility companies have brought that’s asking it to allow them to pass along the costs of disasters to the ratepayers even if the disaster is caused by the utility’s own negligence. And it was actually SDG&E that’s requesting this because of its liability from the fires but PG&E and other utilities would be beneficiaries of that as well if there were a future gas line rupture and, you know, they would be allowed, if this is approved, to pass that along to you and I.
PENNER: Okay, well, let’s go to our listeners. They’re eager to be part of the conversation. And we’ll start with Daniel in Clairemont. Again, our number is 1-888-895-5727. We’re talking about the gas explosion in San Bruno, whether that could happen here, whether we are adequately protected by San Diego Gas & Electric, and maybe we’re overly protected if it’s going to add to the cost of your gas and electric bills. Again, our number is 1-888-895-5727. Daniel, welcome to the Editors Roundtable.
DANIEL (Caller, Clairemont): Thank you very much, Gloria. Thank you for the subject. I’d like to suggest that SDG&E was giving a lot of – given a lot of money to the ratepayers (sic) to underground electrical utility lines and they didn’t do it for over a decade and then they came back again and asked for a little bit more money and the city council suggested that maybe they should get a little help, too. And then we gave them more money and now they’re finally doing it. But they’re still way behind the eight ball there. I think this is how the utility companies, especially when they’re monopolies like this, work. Now they’re suggesting that they want close to $2 to $3 billion for 120 mile electrical line that goes out to the desert and they say that we have to have that, too. And the thing is, is that they caused the fire. And why do we – why should we believe that this might not happen again. I think somebody else really needs to look and be the watchdog for this, and it can’t just be the PUC because it seems like they have conflicts of interest a lot of times in their appointments and their situations that they – how they get there. And…
PENNER: Why – why do you allege that, Daniel? I’m curious about the conflicts.
DANIEL: Well, there’s a lot of things that happen in the appointment situation that happens from the governor and how they’re appointed and what they do. Many times, it seems like they’re not listening to what the citizens say. And remember, when we went to the Sunrise Powerlink we had more people in meetings than they’ve ever had before and they had to have specialized meetings but still they didn’t really consider what the people said. They considered what all of the funders were for all the advertising and all that – all the rhetoric that was going on…
DANIEL: …and continues to go on.
PENNER: …thank you very much, Daniel. You’ve made a lot of very interesting points there. John, let’s come back to you on this oversight of the San Diego Gas & Electric and other utilities companies by the California Public Utilities Commission. Is there sufficient regulation and is it just done by the state?
WARREN: Well, no, the regulation is not just done by the state. I mean, we have the California Public Utilities Commission but we also, on an ongoing basis, have questions as to the effectiveness of that commission when we look at some of the rates that are given and the changes that are allowed, the tariffs, and sometimes they seem to work too very closely with the utility itself. I think we ought to remember a couple of things. Number one, that there’s a reason we have monopolies in terms of gas and electric because it’s not feasible to have a variety of small companies and those companies were bought up years ago. But we also need to understand that while we’re looking at San Diego, a proposal has been put forth by the president and a number of members of Congress to have an infrastructure bank which would reach this very issue. There would be a national bank and perhaps even state infrastructure banks and we would be looking at how we consolidate the care and development and to take this out of the political ballpark that so many of these items are in. So it gets to be much bigger than just us and the PUC.
PENNER: Well, certainly, the president is acknowledging that our infrastructure is getting older and that there has to be some repair and replacement, and I think that that’s an issue that Anthony in Rancho Penasquitos wants to talk about. You’re with us now, Anthony. Welcome.
ANTHONY (Caller, Rancho Penasquitos): Hello. Thanks for having me on.
ANTHONY: My question is how long do you think there’s going to be concern within the public media about these gas lines and maintaining them. And if there’s going to be enough movement in the voter base to get something done or to convince the government to do something about some kind of ballot measure?
PENNER: Thank you very much, Anthony. That’s an interesting question. Ricky, I’m going to direct it to you. Is this an issue that’s going to come and go as we forget about the San Bruno explosion? Or will pressure be kept up in the media as we’ve already started to do and continue it until we really feel as though something’s been done?
YOUNG: I think statewide there’ll be a lot of attention on this matter, given the San Bruno incident. Everybody’s kind of checking how things are locally. You know, as John mentioned earlier, the main complaint that people have in our area seems to be they get irritated when they have to shut off the gas to make upgrades, and so they go – have to go without gas for a while. And, you know, so they, at least at first blush, seem to be doing a good job. So, as I mentioned earlier, we’re going to request some records, look at some inspections. You know, there were some issues up north with the pressurization of the pipes and, as I mentioned, the maintenance and upgrades of the pipes. We will look at some of that, you know, but if the trend tends to be that they do take pretty good care of them down here, I don’t think you’ll hear much more of it down here. But it seems like in some other areas, and maybe in some areas that have more PG&E and less SDG&E you might see more sustained attention to it.
PENNER: That’s Ricky Young, watchdog editor for the U-T. Miriam, you wanted to say something, Miriam Raftery.
RAFTERY: Oh, I – No, I didn’t especially but…
PENNER: Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were nodding at me. It’s John Warren who wants to say something.
WARREN: Yeah, I need to point out something. When I made reference to goldplating, some background information. The reason that there’s a feeling that there’s goldplating and too much inspection is because of the very nature of the system itself. There are gauges at all stops. There’s monitoring from here to Los Angeles, and any change in the pressure within the pipes, even though people might not see it, triggers automatic shutoffs in a number of different areas. And so that’s what makes it so sophisticated. You know, what we – I don’t think it will ever go away because of the idea of 40 homes burning and people dying. That – this one will not go away in terms of people’s minds. They will always be conscious when they smell gas that they could be next.
YOUNG: And there were a couple of issues up in San Bruno, though. One is they didn’t have the automatic shutoff pipes in this particular area because they hadn’t had that upgrade. And the other is if there’s a pressure problem, if they fix it, it doesn’t end up part of the record so you don’t really know how many incidents they have, you only know how many were sort of sustained or weren’t fixed immediately. So…
PENNER: It’s kind of strange to think about having to depend on people’s noses to let us know if there is danger, and think of all the people who go around with allergies and stuffed noses and they can’t smell anything at all. So I’m wondering about our listeners and whether they feel much more alert to the aromas around your house or your apartment that could be leakage of natural gas. Again, our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. We’re going to be back in a moment with more on this subject. There’s lots to talk about. And this is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. And I’m at the table this morning with Miriam Raftery from East County Magazine and John Warren from San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, and from the U-T, it’s watchdog editor Ricky Young. We’re talking about the San Bruno gas explosion, whether it could happen here, whether the utility is maintaining the gas lines sufficiently. How old are they? And are they just bound to deteriorate either from natural causes or from accidents such as we had earlier this month when a pickup truck hit a gas meter in Mira Mesa. And we are taking your calls as well. 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. And let’s start right out with Gabriel in Oak Park. Gabriel, you’re on with the editors.
GABRIEL (Caller, Oak Park): Yes, hello. Thank you. I had a question. I know it’s more kind of a long term idea but I’m just wondering what the opinion is of the editors about having our utilities such as gas and power, maybe even water, be something that’s run by the government that’s public, rather than for-profit, and how that might change these kind of maintenance issues.
PENNER: That is such an interesting question because I was thinking about it from this point of view. I was thinking about President Obama’s idea of a national infrastructure bank to renew the nation’s infrastructure and it would involve private investors and private capital. And I’m wondering about whether for-profit companies such as SDG&E should have access to such financing because they are for-profit and they have access to financing that’s being organized by the federal government, essentially. But let’s go back to his question because, after all, he’s the caller. John.
WARREN: His question there, his question was dealt with many years ago, and I alluded to it a little while back when I indicated that we have public monopolies for a reason, because we know that the private sector can do a better job than the government in terms of maintaining and operating. And so the price is permissible. The whole idea, though, is the regulation aspect, that prices can’t just be raised. I don’t think we will see anymore state or government involvement than we now have in terms of water and utilities because that argument is basically past. But I do see with the private dollars coming in and the infrastructure bank, I see more money but with government regulation that is going to perhaps take the place of the kind of government control that the caller is making reference to.
PENNER: I have a feeling, John, that there are many people in our audience who might question whether you are accurate in saying that the private sector will do a better job than government. And Miriam’s shaking her head.
RAFTERY: Well, I would disagree with that and I think that many people in east county would disagree. While a utility that’s government run certainly can be prone to problems, as anything government run can be, in this case we have a utility, SDG&E, that’s had record profits, some might say windfall profits, and yet has failed to invest in basic fire protection. I drive those backroads all the time out there and I see areas near where the worst wildfires started where we still have saggy lines swaying in the breeze, old wooden, you know, decrepit poles that were supposed to have been replaced 10 years ago. They have the money. They’ve simply chosen not to spend it. So, personally, I think that, you know, a government run utility that puts the ratepayer money back into the appropriate, you know, repairs and things, you know, might be a good thing.
RAFTERY: And I do commend SDG&E for actually – for taking care of the gas lines. I wish they’d do the same with the fire hazards out here.
PENNER: So here we have opinions on either side, whether our utilities should be government run or privately run. And, you know, you could break the tie, Ricky Young, if you chose to.
YOUNG: Well, I just – I mean, I have no idea whether they should be government run or private run. This is a debate that runs whether it’s, you know, healthcare or GM or whatever when you’re getting government involvement. But I would note, you know, I’m trying to think about the caller’s question and I was thinking of a utility that’s government run which is water and, I’ll tell you, my water bill’s gone up a lot more lately than my electric bill or my cable bill. So…
PENNER: And we’ve heard that one of the reasons that the water bill’s going up is because people are using less water which means that the water department is bringing in less money and in order to balance things out they have to raise the rates. So I understand what you’re saying and, of course, this could be a discussion that goes on and on. But we’re going to end it up with one more phone call, and this one is from Mark in El Cajon. Mark, you’re on with the editors.
MARK (Caller, El Cajon): Hello. I just wanted to make a comment.
MARK: And the – with regards to the gas break in – near El Cajon earlier this week.
MARK: The – What I understand, my – I actually live on the street that was shut down for that and from what I understand the gas line was buried right next to the electrical line. So whose responsibility – You know, I know it’s SDG&E’s to keep up the infrastructure but, you know, what was going on back then…
MARK: …to cause this problem today?
PENNER: You’re in the county, are you not? It wasn’t in the city of El Cajon, it was in the county, correct?
MARK: That’s right.
MARK: That’s correct.
PENNER: So I would…
MARK: Well, was there a free for all back then in terms of planning the infrastructure? And, you know, why do we have to pay for this now, you know, in terms of taxes or whatnot? I mean…
PENNER: Okay. Well, thank you for your comment and your question. John Warren, you get the last word on this.
WARREN: There are two brief answers to this. Number one, many of those lines were installed back in the fifties and so they’re now due for replacement. Number two, SDG, gas and electric, so the same entity was responsible for placing both sets of lines. The third point I want to make is that while we might think that a government run thing would be better, the problem is not with the government – with the structure we have. The problem is with the implementation of existing guidelines and policies and enforcement of those things rather than the giving in to SDG&E on all the things they want as with the Sunrise Powerlink and all the other issues there.
YOUNG: Oh, just one last thought. The caller reminded me for some reason, this – I had noticed one of these consumer groups filed a complaint or claim or something saying that they thought the San Bruno thing might’ve been caused by the smart meters. The radio waves for the smart meters might’ve sparked it somehow, just a closing thought.
YOUNG: Look out for the smart meters.
PENNER: Well, it is a closing thought, and I think we’ve going to hear from people because a lot of people are looking forward to the smart meters, are they not, Ricky?
YOUNG: Well, I think maybe some people oppose them and that’s why they’re trying to blame it. The people investigating say it probably had nothing to do with it so…
PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much.