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Saturday, September 19, 2020
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News + Politics Development over gas main gets delayed again

Development over gas main gets delayed again

Planners still can't figure out what to do about a project that could disturb and old creaky PG&E gas line


A proposal to build two large houses on top of a PG&E gas main on the side of Bernal Hill was delayed again today after the City Planning Department abruptly pulled its environmental exemption and said the plan needed more study.

Developer Fabian Lannoye wants to put the 3,000-square-foot houses on a steep grade on the south side of the hill. It’s the only place in San Francisco where a gas main is not covered by a city street – Folsom is discontinuous over the hill, so the large-capacity pipe, which is more than 50 years old, is buried in beneath the soil.

The "experts" at PG&E caused this disaster; why should we rely on them to do better in SF?
The “experts” at PG&E caused this disaster; why should we rely on them to do better in SF?

It’s a little strange to think about building houses virtually atop a gas main – and we know that PG&E gas mains have exploded in the past, most recently killing 8 people and wiping out a neighborhood in San Bruno. A court found the company guilty of failing to maintain the line.

But there’s a lot that’s strange about this project. (Full disclosure, I live in Bernal Heights and sometimes go jogging along the sidewalk near the proposed project. I suppose it might block my view south for about 15 seconds, more if I am running particularly slowly that day, but like many residents, I don’t think that’s really an issue. Getting blown up by a gas explosion is different.)

This has been before the Planning Department for more than two years. First, the department issued a Categorical Exemption, saying the project didn’t need an environmental impact report. Then the department withdrew the CADEX, and later issued another one.

Then this morning, just before the supes were scheduled to hear an appeal of that CADEX, the department withdrew it again – meaning that the developer, his lawyer, the neighbors who had appealed the project, and everyone who had an interest in it and had taken off time from work to show up for the hearing, essentially have to start the process all over again.

When Sup. Hillary Ronen, who expressed considerable frustration with the process, asked why the CADEX was withdrawn a second time, the department representative, Lisa Gibson, said that new information had come to light – a letter from the neighbors, she said, noted that construction work could cause sufficient vibrations in the soil and bedrock to damage the integrity of the pipeline and that had to be investigated.

If that’s the case, Ronen said, perhaps planners should just acknowledge that the project requires a full environmental review.

The developer was furious, and said that the delay would add more than seven months to the project construction. He argued that the city ought to defer to “the experts, and that’s PG&E.”

Nobody mentioned that PG&E, the supposed experts, were just found guilty at trial of allowing an entire neighborhood to be destroyed by corporate incompetence.

Another odd twist: Just before the motion to table the hearing, Sup. Ahsha Safai announced that he wanted to be recused from the vote. He gave no reason – until Sups. Malia Cohen, Aaron Peskin, and Ronen pushed back and asked why.

At first Safai would just say he had “prior conflicts.” After some back and forth with the City Attorney’s Office, Safai admitted that he had done previous consulting work with the developer.

So that’s interesting: How many other clients does Safai have who might be impacted by legislation or hearings that will come before the board? How often in the future will he have to recuse himself?

How will that impact his effectiveness as a supervisor – and why didn’t the voters know about that during his campaign?

So now this project is back to City Planning, where someone – presumably someone other than PG&E – will look at the serious public safety issues.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


    • You seem to know an awful lot about this pipeline (perhaps even more than PG&E does, given its criminally shoddy records management).

      Given that the line in San Bruno that blew up was “Line 132” and this is “Line 109” (according to the SFBG article from 2014), it seems reasonable to assume that it is of roughly the same vintage as the San Bruno pipeline.

      Of course, if you have evidence to the contrary, do feel free to share it.

      • One big difference your slur fails to take into account: reading 48 Hills isn’t going to cost any lives, but when people put blind faith in PG&E, neighborhoods are destroyed and people are murdered.

        Todd’s BW article says PG&E last tested and “inspected” the line in 2014. (Aerial inspection doesn’t sound like much of an inspection when it comes to geology, now does it?)

        Again, the company’s track record does NOT inspire confidence.

      • So we should never be able to do any construction in SF that is near a PGE gas line. And what do you know, all neighborhoods have underground gas lines nearby which would prohibit construction. NIMBY problem solved – no construction anywhere because: gas lines exploding! Death! Murder!

      • There’s a big difference between a distribution main and a transmission pipeline, “bob.”

        Most parts of SF don’t have transmission pipelines running through them; those are limited to the southeastern neighborhoods; e.g., Bernal Heights, Dogwatch, Potrero Hill, Vis Valley, Portola, Mission Terrace, and Cayuga. (According to PG&E’s own maps, that is.)

      • Ok “libertyhiller”
        So then we should never have any construction in “Bernal Heights, Dogwatch, Potrero Hill, Vis Valley, Portola, Mission Terrace, and Cayuga” due to PGE transmission pipelines.
        Does the planning commission know they should be consulting with you on all requests in these areas?

      • Don’t be ridiculous.

        The planning department has called for further study, instead of rubber-stamping the developer’s application. I’m OK with that decision; you’re the one who seems to have a problem with it.

      • Delay ≠ deny; God forbid the planning department does its job.

        Should I be calling you “bob” or “Fabian”?

      • Anyone involved in SF planning knows that each project is death by a thousand cuts. This is how SF NIMBYs operate. Delay delay delay.
        No idea who “Fabian” is.

      • You seem to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist. From Bernalwoods own investigation into this drama:”The good news is, our section of Line 109 is relatively new [installed in the early 1980s], and thus hopefully does not have any of the shoddy, 1950s-era welds that were blamed in the San Bruno explosion. Likwise, it seems that an active inspection regimen is in place to validate the line’s integrity.”

        But by all means, continue to believe your own alternative facts so that more people can be spun up. I mean the goal here is to get more people riled up about non issues right?

    • Sounds like he waited until the very last minute to do so and tried to sweep it under the rug with the rubric of “prior conflicts.” Why didn’t he just say he’d done work for the developer at the start of the hearing?

      IMHO, people with such conflicts shouldn’t be running for the Board of Supervisors in the first place.

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