Atherton, Menlo Park: PG&E says hundreds of trees near gas pipelines may be removed

Nearly 1,400 Menlo Park and Atherton trees to be examined

More than 130 Menlo Park and Atherton property owners should soon receive letters from Pacific Gas and Electric saying up to 1,400 trees near PG&E gas transmission pipes on their properties may need to be removed as safety hazards.

The program has drawn criticism from local officials, including Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who is featured in a PG&E mailer endorsing the program, and from members of the Atherton City Council. The Menlo Park City Council is due to be briefed on the program on Aug. 25.

A PG&E spokesman said letters were sent Thursday, July 23, to 48 Atherton property owners who have gas transmission pipeline easements through their property, with 600 trees that could need to be cut. Letters to 83 Menlo Park property owners with 800 such trees will be next, he said.

Letters were also sent earlier in the week to neighbors of the Atherton properties, warning them of upcoming work in their neighborhoods, according to Jeff Smith of PG&E's corporate relations department.

In similar programs elsewhere, between 30 to 40 percent of the trees examined must be removed, PG&E government relations representative William Chiang told the Atherton City Council in a recent presentation. If 40 percent of local trees must go, Atherton property owners would lose 240 trees and Menlo Park property owners 320 trees.

Location of pipelines

PG&E's website shows the properties affected in Atherton are along Walsh Road and Ringwood Avenue. In Menlo Park the gas lines run along parts of Middlefield Road, Sand Hill Road, through the Sand Hill Circle area, Sevier Avenue, Chester Street, Grayson Court, Van Buren Road and Bay Road. Mr. Smith said trees will also be cut in East Palo Alto soon, and in Palo Alto, Woodside and Portola Valley next year.

In early April, PG&E was ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission to put $850 million of shareholder funds into "gas transmission pipeline safety infrastructure improvements," as part of $1.6 billion in penalties "for the unsafe operation of its gas transmission system." In 2010, an explosion at a gas-transmission line in San Bruno killed eight people. It was the highest penalty the PUC has even imposed.

According to a brochure prepared by PG&E about what it is calling a "community pipeline safety initiative," trees and shrubs and plants with woody stems, such as manzanita and juniper, should be at least 10 feet away from a gas pipeline, while "larger trees" need to be at least 14 feet away. That means property owners could be asked to remove trees from a 28-foot-wide swath of their property.

PG&E says it will replace any removed trees with new trees elsewhere on a property.

Structures, including buildings, solid fences, pools, hot tubs, patios, decks and gazebos, also must be removed if they are above the pipeline, the brochure says.

After the notification letter

Property owners who have the PG&E pipeline running through their property will receive a followup phone call from PG&E to set up an inspection appointment, Mr. Smith said.

Later a PG&E representative will meet with the homeowners to discuss a plan for dealing with any trees or other impediments in the PG&E right-of-way. No action will be taken until after there is a written and signed action plan with each homeowner, he said.

PG&E plans to meet with the Menlo Park City Council to explain the program on Aug. 25, Mr. Smith said. If the meeting PG&E officials had with the Atherton council on July 15 is any indication, things may not go smoothly.

Atherton council reaction

"I really don't feel you're doing great work," Councilman Cary Wiest said. "What have you done in the 50-plus years you've had the easements on these properties? I'll guess nothing."

Since trees may have been growing in the easements for 50 or more years, many of them could be heritage trees, he and other council members said. In Atherton most trees that are 48 inches or more in circumference are heritage trees.

City Attorney Bill Connors pointed out that by removing 200 heritage trees, PG&E could be taking out more such trees all at once than all Atherton residents have done in 40 years.

Council member Elizabeth Lewis asked if there wasn't an alternative to the wholesale tree removal.

"Is there any potential of – instead of destroying a tree or destroying a neighborhood by cutting down all the trees – of relocating the pipes?" she asked.

It would take about three years to do the necessary studies and move pipelines, Ms. Lewis was told, and the company wants to do the work within the next few months.

Ms. Lewis urged PG&E to look more into relocating the pipes. "We haven't had any notification of these pipelines being in danger," she said. "I see the need for safety – I don't see the need for the rush to take down 500 trees."

"We are working right now to keep the pipes safe, and having access for first responders is the number one issue," said Darin Cline, a PG&E government relations representative.

But one of those first responders who was present at the meeting seemed skeptical.

Chief Schapelhouman on plan

Menlo Park Fire Protection Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who is featured in a recent PG&E mailing to San Mateo County residents, attended the presentation. The mailing explaining the "new safety initiative" quotes the chief as saying that removing "obstructions to gas pipelines will help speed response times and save lives."

After the meeting, however, Chief Schapelhouman, who was one of the first responders on the scene after the San Bruno explosion, had some pointed comments about PG&E's plans in Atherton.

"I thought the council members asked some very important questions and had some excellent points," he said. Chief Schapelhouman said he understands "why there is a huge concern about what 'access' really means and how we actually and logically define and discuss risk," he said.

"No one wants to see 500 trees cut down, that isn't acceptable," he said.

Town wants promises in writing

PG&E has promised to abide by the town's tree-removal permit process, although the representatives said they won't actually get permits because as a public utility they don't have to. Mr. Chiang agreed, however, to go to the Planning Commission to get permission to take out each heritage tree, which is the town's requirement.

That promise prompted City Attorney Connors to ask what PG&E would do if the Planning Commission said a tree must stay. "We haven't come across that yet," said Mr. Cline.

The council asked PG&E to put the promises about the project into writing. The promises included not doing any work without written permission of homeowners, replacing trees that are removed and restoring landscaping, notifying the town of who will be doing all the work and when, and hiring an additional arborist to oversee the work if the town's arborist can't be there.

PG&E also promised to individually examine each tree near the pipeline to see if it can be allowed to stay.

"We're trying to learn from past experiences," said PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith. "We have not always partnered with communities to the degree that we should."

Mr. Smith said PG&E wants to "work with (Atherton) to come up with a solution that's satisfactory to them."

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5 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 24, 2015 at 10:30 am

There are many flag lots throughout MP and Atherton which have their gas service running alongside private drives and through neighbors' yards. I know of several where trees are well within 14 ft and even directly above these individual supply lines. In almost all cases PG&E has easements along those minor gas lines. Will PG&E be checking and removing any of those trees?

Can you check that out Barbara?

14 people like this
Posted by MargeryM
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jul 24, 2015 at 12:48 pm

After years of infrastructure neglect and lack of inspections, PG&E's answer is to remove trees? Is there any evidence that trees actually are a threat to the gas pipelines? Citizens need to force them come up with a smarter way to ensure safe pipelines. Uprooting large trees at this point may actually damage the pipelines!

11 people like this
Posted by Edward Syrett
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 24, 2015 at 1:48 pm

Edward Syrett is a registered user.

This is a marvelously and instructively inappropriate response by PG&E to the bad publicity it received after the San Bruno disaster and the subsequent revelations of regulatory capture (the P.U.C. as a wholly-owned subsidiary of PG&E). Instead of changing the corporate culture to actually care about the public's welfare, PG&E does things that are very visible (ads and mailers) and disruptive (street closures, removing heritage trees) to show "how hard they are trying." When an individual behaves this way under criticism, his or her behavior is termed "passive-aggressive".

21 people like this
Posted by Tej Ravindra
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jul 24, 2015 at 2:28 pm

Wow. I have never heard of such insanity. Replace the pipes or relocate them. Trees like these take hundreds of years to grow. Human shortsightedness and thoughtlessness never ceases to amaze me. Hope the neighbors unite and prevent this awful plan from being executed.

10 people like this
Posted by Debbie Mytels
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2015 at 2:35 pm

This points out another reason why we need to switch away from using natural gas and move to clean (solar/wind/etc.) electricity. Trees not only provide beauty and shade, they also absurd carbon dioxide.

We should be preserving our investment in trees and move away from dirty and incendiary fossil fuels like methane (natural gas) that are causing climate change. Say "no" to PG&E's plan!

6 people like this
Posted by acomfort
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jul 24, 2015 at 9:47 pm

Would using a PIG (Pipeline Inspection Gadget) frequently be an option to cutting down trees?
Pigs are primarily used in oil and gas pipelines: they are used to clean the pipes but also there are "smart pigs" or "intelligent pigs" used to measure things like pipe thickness and corrosion along the pipeline.<SNIP>

Pigging refers to the practice of using internal devices, commonly referred to as 'pigs' to perform various operations on the internal side of a pipeline without stopping the flow of the product in the pipeline. <SNIP>

The use of intelligent pigs to inspect an entire pipeline in a matter of days for internal and external corrosion has revolutionized the pipeline world and the actions taken to repair, replace or monitor corrosion defects has prevented many leaks and ruptures and allowed pipelines to remain in service with a level of confidence previously not able to be used, especially for gas pipelines where annual pressure tests were not normally possible or permitted. Unfortunately due to this technology not being commonly available until the 1980's, many gas pipelines in particular were built in such a configuration that intelligent pigging is not possible (very tight bends, blind tees, diameter changes etc) Some pipelines can be inspected using a tethered pig where the pig has a cable which both transmits data and also physically pulls the pig back wards if flow cannot be reversed. The length of line able to be inspected this way is limited and normally it requires modifications to the pipework to allow normal in-line pigging to occur. <SNIP>

Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 25, 2015 at 8:52 am

SteveC is a registered user.

Actually it is a good response from PG&E. Shows their total disregards and contempt for their customers. I am sure, like other comments above that alternatives are available w/o hacking down trees.

3 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 25, 2015 at 11:07 am

I believe for the use of PIGS the pipeline must be empty, flow of oil stopped. This would likely not be possible on natural gas lines in urban areas as there would be a major interruption to homes, businesses, hospitals, etc.

1 person likes this
Posted by acomfort
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jul 26, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Maybe you missed these statements from the previous post.

"Pigging refers to the practice of using internal devices, commonly referred to as 'pigs' to perform various operations on the internal side of a pipeline without stopping the flow of the product in the pipeline."

"allowed pipelines to remain in service with a level of confidence previously not able to be used, especially for gas pipelines"

2 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 26, 2015 at 10:07 pm


5 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 27, 2015 at 2:19 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

Let's see. All of the trees were planted in PG&E easements. Easements which anyone that has ever purchased a piece of property with easements would have been made aware of. Yet, they chose to plant trees in those easements. Now they want to complain because PG&E wants those trees out of their easement? Hello? Perhaps they should have paid attention to the easements when planting trees.

Shame on PG&E for taking this long to address it, but shame on those homeowners for planting trees in the easement. There's a reason there's an easement there.

1 person likes this
Posted by Rick Moen
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jul 28, 2015 at 12:46 pm

Menlo Voter's point about homeowners' need to be aware of and respect easements is well taken -- but I wish to add that not all trees arise because the property owner planted them. Many trees are also planted by birds and the wind when you aren't looking. Not that you aren't responsible for those too, of course.

In 2006, when I moved back into my family home in University Heights after it'd been a rental property for 40 years, I found numerous volunteer trees inside the utility easement corridor -- and removed most of them. A couple remain, and, if the utilities ever insist, I'll be out there with my axe, and not complaining.

Rick Moen

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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