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PG&E to test underground gas mains

Fire district more involved since San Bruno explosion

Click on map to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

To test the condition of natural gas pipelines that pass under parts of Menlo Park and Woodside, Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. will be running a remote controlled camera through selected pipes, followed by an infusion of water at much higher pressure than the pipes ever experience, according to PG&E.

The inspection program, begun after the pipeline September 2010 explosion in San Bruno, is "rigorous and ongoing" and intended "to improve the safety and operations of our natural gas transmission system and the safety of the communities we serve," PG&E said in a statement.

The pipes run west along Sand Hill Road from about Branner Drive to Interstate 280, under the Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club and along I-280 to Woodside Road, according to a PG&E map. (The testing schedule is not yet available.)

Depending on the wind, an odor of natural gas may accompany this operation as a pipe section is blocked off and purged of gas. The gas will "quickly dissipate and will not be harmful," the company statement said.

After testing, a second purging may again cause escaped gas, which will also disperse harmlessly, the statement said. The water used in testing will be considered tainted.

As the day of testing approaches, robo-calls will be made to homes and businesses within 2,000 feet of the gas line, the statement said.

The company urges people concerned by gas odors to call 1-800-743-5000, a 24-hour PG&E customer service line.

No work will be done without advance notice to fire and police agencies, and the company says it anticipates no disruption to customer gas service. Road crews will be on hand to control traffic and parking.

Now forewarned

When different kinds of utility lines meet in the same patch of ground, the unexpected can happen.

In San Bruno on September 10, 2010, when a gas line exploded and several people died in the resulting havoc, significant damage was done to a water main and sewer line, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District said in an interview.

"We couldn't shut the water down all the way and it created a (jet effect) that sucked sewage into the water main," Chief Schapelhouman said, recalling his experience that night.

That experience, he said, has robbed him of excuses for not thinking about collateral damage in the event of a major catastrophe in the Menlo Park district.

"That (excuse of ignorance) is gone for me now," he said. "I don't get that soft pitch again. I've got to plan and train and prepare from what I've learned. I need to have a comfort level (such that) we've asked and exhausted all the questions to ensure public safety."

After a few hiccups, PG&E is now familiar with the Menlo Park district management's interest in becoming educated observers of local pipeline matters, including their ages, fitness, locations, capacities and maintenance, Chief Schapelhouman said.

"We're putting people in harm's way and we're standing on point," he said. "We haven't had the necessary dialog to assess the risk and understand the complexity of the issues. I think (PG&E) is getting that. I don't think anybody really thought this through."

"Hopefully the testing will be successful and we'll all have a higher comfort level as to the resilience of the infrastructure," he said.

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