U.S. probe says PG&E gas shut­off too slow

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Lau­ren Hernán­dez

Fed­eral of­fi­cials in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pipe­line ex­plo­sion that burned five build­ings in San Fran­cisco last week say it’s not the first time that crews at Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. took sev­eral hours to cut off gas lines feed­ing large fires.

In at least four other pipe­line fires in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, PG&E crews took be­tween 95 min­utes and more than nine hours to shut off the gas, ac­cord­ing to Jen­nifer Homendy, a Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board mem­ber.

Such de­lays can mean that fires burn longer, po­ten­tially caus­ing more dam­age to prop­erty and even the loss of life.

“We’ve had a num­ber of rec­om­men­da­tions. We’ve is­sued a num­ber of stud­ies on the need to shut down the flow of gas — quickly — to min­i­mize im­pact,” Homendy said Satur­day at a news con­fer­ence at the site of last week’s pipe­line fire in the

In­ner Rich­mond Dis­trict.

PG&E of­fi­cials have said that shut­ting off gas lines in ac­cor­dance with state guide­lines can re­quire hand dig­ging that takes time, as they say was the case in the re­cent ex­plo­sion.

On Wed­nes­day, PG&E took just over two hours to shut off gas that was fu­el­ing the blaze at Geary Boule­vard and Parker Av­enue. Ear­lier in the day, con­tract crews work­ing for Ver­i­zon dug into the street and punc­tured a PG&E gas line, caus­ing flames to shoot 40 feet into the air. Five res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial build­ings burned, in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar Hong Kong Lounge II restau­rant.

No­body was in­jured, but fed­eral of­fi­cials said early in their in­ves­ti­ga­tion that they are con­cerned about how long it took util­ity work­ers to cut the gas. The NTSB rou­tinely in­ves­ti­gates trans­porta­tion in­ci­dents in­clud­ing plane crashes and ma­jor ve­hi­cle col­li­sions as well as pipe­line ex­plo­sions.

Homendy said the long­est it has taken PG&E to cut off gas in a fire was nine hours and 10 min­utes on Aug. 25, 1981. A PG&E con­trac­tor rup­tured a 16-inch nat­u­ral-gas main in San Fran­cisco’s Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict, ac­cord­ing to a NTSB re­port.

Af­ter the in­ci­dent, of­fi­cials made “sev­eral rec­om­men­da­tions” to PG&E, in­clud­ing to “train and equip com­pany per­son­nel who re­spond to emer­gency con­di­tions in the op­er­a­tion of emer­gency shut­down valves,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

In an­other in­ci­dent in 2008, it took crews two hours and 47 min­utes to shut off gas af­ter a pipe­line ex­ploded on Christ­mas Eve out­side a home in Ran­cho Cordova (Sacra­mento County), Homendy said.

In the de­struc­tive 2010 pipe­line ex­plo­sion in San Bruno, which killed eight peo­ple, crews took 95 min­utes, she said.

The NTSB has not given util­ity com­pa­nies a spe­cific time­line for when gas flows should be shut off in the event of a fire. But Homendy said of­fi­cials have re­peat­edly “stated that it needs to be a rapid shut­down.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors want to know whether PG&E heeded the safety board’s past rec­om­men­da­tions for im­proved re­sponse.

PG&E of­fi­cials have said that on Wed­nes­day they could not have re­motely shut off the gas be­cause dis­tri­bu­tion lines like the one that rup­tured do not have such ca­pa­bil­ity.

Util­ity crews man­u­ally shut off the gas at six valves dur­ing the fire, ac­cord­ing to PG&E. A com­pany of­fi­cial said Wed­nes­day that work­ers had to dig through asphalt to reach the valves, though on Satur­day fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors said the six valves were lo­cated at street level and were not paved over. Homendy said PG&E turned the valves off and also dug “into their pipe” to clamp down on the bro­ken gas line to stop the flow.

PG&E rep­re­sen­ta­tives said Satur­day they could not im­me­di­ately ad­dress the safety board’s claims, but sought to clar­ify the com­pany’s ac­tions dur­ing the fire.

“The plan­ning team de­ter­mined that these six valves were the best way to shut off gas with­out los­ing (ser­vice) to thou­sands of ad­di­tional cus­tomers,” a PG&E rep­re­sen­ta­tive said in an email.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials ex­pect to re­lease a pre­lim­i­nary re­port on the ex­plo­sion within the next 10 to 14 days. A fi­nal re­port will fol­low.

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