Road work exposes gas line map inaccuracies

September 7, 2011 1:21:38 AM PDT
After the natural gas fireball in San Bruno and the fire last week in Cupertino, Bay Area residents have become much more sensitive to the possibility of disaster. A road construction project in downtown Belmont is highlighting that concern and it's exposed an ongoing problem with the accuracy of underground pipeline maps.

The map said one thing, but the gas line under a barricade was not as deep as expected. After neighbors complained, workers quickly covered it up Tuesday, and now parts of the construction project are delayed waiting for PG&E to move the gas line.

There's a piece of wood over it now, but neighbors say a natural gas line underneath was fully exposed for more than a month. It's in front of property owned by retired Fire Battalion Chief Jim O'Donnell who was afraid a car might drive over it.

"The pipe could break, similar to what happened in Cupertino," said O'Donnell. "That's what I was afraid of. We're all concerned about that."

The project to lower the road on 6th Avenue near Belmont City Hall exposed another problem -- PG&E pipeline maps aren't always accurate when it comes to the depth of gas lines.

"At that time we realized that the PG&E lines were much shallower then we originally thought," said Belmont city engineer Leticia Alvarez. "We thought they'd be down further than about three feet. They were about 12 inches down."

Alvarez says Belmont and its contractor were relying on maps provided by PG&E, but other utility maps can be wrong, as well.

"It's not an uncommon thing for us to have inaccurate information because these pipes were put in years ago and sometimes they weren't recorded correctly," she said.

Last week, a condominium in Cupertino went up in flames after a plastic gas line ruptured. And after last September's San Bruno catastrophe, a federal report slammed PG&E for its poor recordkeeping of the condition and inspection of underground pipelines.

Regarding map discrepancies on the Belmont street project, a utility spokesperson told ABC7 News, "PG&E maps can't guarantee depth, but we provide a range because landscaping, erosion, grading and other work can change the depth of pipes over time."

So how dangerous is that?

"My guess would be as good as yours, but knowing the general location of them we are very careful around all our utility lines," said Alvarez. "Where we think they are, we dig carefully."

"Very big concern. We don't want another big problem, you know, and San Bruno and Cupertino are enough," said Belmont business owner Jack Turturici.

PG&E has been able to lower another gas line, but not this one. They were called away on an emergency. The city hopes to get this done in a week, but they are making contingency plans if PG&E cannot lower the gas line.

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