Friday, September 10, 2010


Having been through the Oakland Hills Fire, my heart goes out to the people in San Bruno affected by this terrible fire. As of this morning it's 75% contained.   By all accounts the fire began when a major gas line in the area ruptured - since the thing is still burning, it's likely to be awhile before we find out exactly what happened.  But I have an uneasy feeling.

I've spent the last 30 years or so watching our entire country (diligent individuals excepted) ignoring the issue of maintenance.  Cities, counties, states, the Federal government - nobody wanted to put any money into repairs.  I have no reason to assume that PG&E was an exception to this trend.  How long had that gas line been there?  When was the last time anybody checked on its condition?  We don't know.  I hope we find out some day.

I know this:  if we don't take care of our infrastructure, some day our infrastructure will take care of us.  I drove an acquaintance home last night, over Oakland streets, and the pavement nearly sprang my shocks.  The City of Oakland has an 80 year street repair schedule!  The Oakland Hills fire was caused by an incompletely extinguished trash fire - negligence on the part of the burners and the fire department.  This fire appears to have been caused by a different kind of negligence.  How many other gas mains resemble this one?  We don't know.  I hope we don't find out the hard way.


  1. We live up in Kensington, in a well-documented "slide zone" where the land creeps along at a rate of about a quarter inch downhill each year, rain or shine, wet year or dry. About five years ago, we had a strong "gas smell" in the neighborhood, and, sure enough, there had occurred a rupture on the street just below us. You could see the pipeline right on the surface of the street (at the edge of the curb) where the break was, and it went unattended for perhaps half a day before PG&E came to dig it up and repair it. PG&E knows very well the risks of not monitoring the lines in a slide zone, but as far as I know, they've not checked the grid up here in a generation or more. The "smell" by the way, is a chemical additive which is put into the gas, so people will smell it; if they didn't, we wouldn't even know about leaks.

    PG&E has been "cutting back" on maintenance for decades--supposedly "stream-lining" and "modernizing" and "automating" with "computerized technical hard- and soft-ware." Bullshit. It's just been cutting corners and postponing maintenance of lines and connections to keep profit margins high.

    The big scandal, which broke a couple of days ago, is that PG&E had actually been granted a rate increase from the PUC to address this particular segment of the grid for upgrading, but the utility just hadn't "gotten around to it yet"--doubtless pocketing the add'l "stream of revenue" "for a rainy day."

    Meanwhile, a state legislator has been preparing a bill that would prevent utilities from charging their customers to pay for accidents like this, brought on by company negligence or error.

    When I was growing up, PG&E was a model of good, reliable service. Their repair and maintenance staff were a familiar and welcome sight in neighborhoods. Their response times in those days was frequently as short as 10 minutes. Today, you have to schedule visits a week in advance, and good luck about being home when they "decide" to knock on your door.

    PG&E needs to be "nationalized" and run as a public service.

  2. When I smelled gas in Medford, I called the fire department (mainly because they were around the corner). They had someone out checking on it in a few minutes. Maybe the fire department is the one to call.