When Herb Felsenfeld and his wife, Gail Newman, look out the window of the Bernal Heights home they’ve lived in for more than 30 years, they see a vacant hilly lot grown in with tall grass, stretching up in the direction of nearby Bernal Heights Park.
The surrounding area has become quite popular. Earlier this year, real estate firm Redfin crowned Bernal Heights the nation’s No. 1 “hottest neighborhood,” its desirability ranked using “a combination of big-data analysis and real-life human experience,” according to the company blog.
There are plans to build two new single-family homes on the slope directly above them, causing a bit of a neighborhood stir. But one detail about this particular site — perched high atop Folsom Street on the eastern slope of Bernal Hill — has neighbors on edge.
Below the surface, extending up a 35 percent grade, is a natural gas pipeline owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Property records designate it as Line 109, and it traverses the Bernal Heights neighborhood from farther south, running up Folsom Street. Two orange-and-white striped markers stake out its trajectory uphill, with an orange sticker on the back proclaiming, “Warning: Gas Pipeline.”
It’s serviced the area for at least 30 years, perhaps much longer, qualifying it as an aging piece of infrastructure. Felsenfeld, Newman, and neighbor Deborah Gerson say they’re worried that performing excavation on the slope for a road and new home foundations poses a safety threat.
Newman said she was especially perplexed by the San Francisco Planning Department’s issuance of a waiver of an environmental impact review, which is routine for a project of this size, citing no unusual circumstances. “I’m like, wait a minute,” she said. “There’s a pipeline here.”
Lannoye, who is building one of the two new houses, described the project as a two-story, single-family home where he hopes to live with his wife and two children. He said he understands the neighbors’ concerns about safety, but also believes they are organizing in an effort to prevent him from moving forward.
Bay Guardian‘s request for comment.
In general, the only parties who seem to be directly involved when there is construction near natural gas pipelines are the utility company and the project developer. An association called the Common Ground Alliance maintains the 811 phone line — a service known as Call Before You Dig — to ensure the location of underground lines are marked prior to any excavation.
When the Guardian phoned San Francisco’s Department of Public Works to ask if the agency has a pipeline risk assessment procedure in place when new construction is planned, we were told that such a thing might fall under the scope of the Department of Building Inspection.
But in a voicemail, DBI spokesperson Bill Strawn responded that such a thing might be up to the Department of Public Works, adding, “There’s no restriction about somebody building a project or a house somewhere in the vicinity of a natural gas pipeline.”
“Our plan,” Lannoye explained, “is not to dig where the gas line is.” Line 109 would run beneath a sidewalk, he added.
Marilyn Waterman, another neighbor, outlined the situation in an email to University of California Berkeley professor Robert Bea, a nationally renowned civil engineer. She asked Bea if concern is warranted.
“Given the background you provided in your email, yes — you should be concerned,” he responded. It’s an old line, Bea pointed out, in an area with highly variable topography, with no available records detailing its operation and maintenance.
“This list is identical to the list of concerns that summarized causation of the San Bruno Line 132 gas pipeline disaster,” Bea wrote. “The fundamental ‘challenge’ associated with your concern is tied to the word ‘safe.'”
His rule of thumb? “If the potential consequences associated with a failure are low, then the likelihood of the failure can be high. If the potential consequences are very high, then the probability of failure must be very low.”