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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Death toll rises in Bay Area gas blast

    SAN BRUNO, Calif. — Two days after a massive pipeline blast engulfed a Peninsula neighborhood in a hellish inferno, search teams made the grisly discovery of three more bodies in a home destroyed by the explosion, and new information surfaced about a 2008 sewer project that could have weakened the gas line.

    In all, the death toll rose to seven, and six additional people are still considered missing, officials said Saturday night.

    Meanwhile, at a town-hall meeting, San Bruno residents demanded answers from Pacific Gas & Electric, which owns the 30-inch natural gas pipeline that exploded into a fireball Thursday evening, destroying 37 homes and sending hundreds fleeing from more than 200 other homes. In one potentially significant area for investigators, records surfaced Saturday showing that two years ago, the San Bruno City Council hired a construction company to replace underground sewer lines in the same area as the location of the pipeline that exploded.

    In May 2008, the city approved a contract with D’Arcy and Harty Construction, a San Francisco firm, to replace 1,670 feet of aging sewer pipes on Earl Avenue from Sneath Lane to Glenview Drive. The sewer work crossed the gas pipeline at the intersection of Earl and Glenview, which is the location of the explosion.

    To avoid the disruption of digging trenches in the street, the contractor used a method called “”pipe bursting.”” Crews pulled a large, cone-shaped device through the aging, 6-inch sewer pipes, shattering them, and replaced them by pulling a new, 10-inch, polyethylene sewer pipe in behind them. The technique can cause ground shaking and disruption of adjacent soil and rock.

    PG&E vice president Geisha Williams, asked by a resident Saturday at the town hall meeting about whether the sewer work could have damaged the natural gas line nearby, said that PG&E inspected the gas line before and after the sewer work, and found no problems. The utlity’s crews checked for corrosion in November 2009 as part of a five-year routine of all high-pressure transmission lines, and they conducted more routine annual inspections in March 2009 and March 2010, Williams said. “”We have a number of periodic inspection programs for our pipelines and it was just completed on this pipeline a couple months ago,”” she said.

    But a representative of the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E pipelines, told the Mercury News that large transmission pipes, which move gas at high pressures, can be at risk of failure if they are damaged, even in relatively small ways.

    “”We don’t know yet what happened to the pipe. But, theoretically, any kind of ground movement or shifting could affect that transmission line,”” said Julie Halligan, deputy director of the PUC’s consumer protection and safety division. “”If that construction wasn’t done properly, theoretically it could have affected it. Pipe damage over time can make that spot vulnerable, so that one weak spot can cause a problem.”” Mike D’Arcy, president of D’Arcy and Harty Construction, did not return calls for comment.

    Also Saturday, a consumer advocacy group released PG&E memos that indicated the utility considered a 30-inch pipeline in the area as among its top 100 riskiest sections, and in need of replacement.

    “”The likelihood of a failure makes the risk of a failure at this location unacceptably high,”” said the document, which was submitted last year to the State Public Utilities Commission as part of a plan to raise rates to pay for pipeline upgrades around the state.

    The precise section was not clear, but the 30-inch pipe was identified in a region known as “”South San Francisco.”” PG&E recommended a $5 million project to replace 7,481 feet of the pipeline by November 2013.

    “”We know it is in the area of the same pipeline near to where the explosion occurred,”” said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Rate Network, a San Francisco consumer group. “”If you know you have a compromised pipeline in the area, and consumers are calling you saying they smell gas, what more do they need to know? It seems that there were all sorts of red lights going off saying there could be a problem here.”” PG&E did not respond to questions about the memo.

    Also on Saturday, the death toll rose to seven with the discovery of three new victims.

    Santa Clara County firefighters working with the search dogs said bones were discovered this morning. “”The house was burned all the way down to a fireplace and a staircase,”” said Santa Clara County Fire Capt. Joe Viramontez, who was part of the search team that found the remains on about 10 a.m. Saturday.

    The house was among the last to be searched two days after the disaster.

    Twenty-five percent of the burn area was too hot for cadaver dogs to enter on Friday, so search crews returned Saturday to finish combing through the wreckage.

    “”The dogs really hit on it (the scent) hard today,”” Santa Clara County Firefighter Bob Wess said.

    Nine cadaver dogs and multiple teams continued to search for bodies, San Mateo County Deputy Coroner April Florent said. “”The dogs are getting hits, but we don’t know if they are animal or human.”” “”It’s still ongoing,”” she said of the search. The coroner had not identified the latest victims as of Saturday night.

    Among the dead already identified were Jessica Morales, 20, Jacqueline Greig, 44, and her daughter, Janessa Greig, 13, all of San Bruno, according to the San Mateo County coroner. Also feared dead is Elizabeth Torres, 81.

    Also on Saturday, San Bruno residents learned they would not be allowed to return home while investigators continued the search and emergency and utility workers continued inspecting the burn zone. More than 600 people crowded into St. Roberts Catholic Church for a town-hall meeting, demanding answers into when they could go home, what caused the blast and who would pay for the damages. At least two people were so overcome by the heat at the packed event that they had to be whisked to a hospital.

    About 271 homes have been evacuated, with 37 destroyed. Some residents will begin going back home at 8 a.m. Sunday. Police and PG&E will escort everyone to make sure their gas and electric service is operating safely when they return. President Barack Obama pledged federal support in a phone call to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And, in a morning news conference, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called for accelerated inspections of pipelines and announced a congressional committee will hold a hearing next week in Washington, D.C.

    PG&E President Chris Johns said the utility’s crews are inspecting other major transmission lines that run along the Peninsula. Investigators say they still don’t know why the 30-inch steel pipeline, which was built in 1956, blew Thursday evening, igniting a massive fireball.

    While word spread after the explosion that some residents had reported the smell of gas in the days before the blast, PG&E officials said they were still investigating.

    “”We are two-thirds of the way through reviewing our records, and we have not been able to confirm receiving any calls,”” Johns said Saturday.

    On Saturday, an acrid, burned smell still lingered in the air. In the middle of Glenview Drive lay a broken piece of the exploded pipeline, 28 feet long. The section, roughly as long as a bus, had blown about 100 feet from its original site.

    NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said the broken pipe section is expected to be taken to a lab in Washington for further inspection. The crater the explosion left is 167 feet long and 26 feet wide, he said.

    That inspection would include studying whether fractures developed because of an impact, fatigue or other reasons, Hart said. Authorities are looking into the insulation of the pipeline, its pressure and what safeguards were in place, if any. The investigation is expected to take up to 18 months.

    Despite the fact that the damaged pipeline was built decades ago, he said, “”maintenance is far more important than age. It’s like your car.

    If you have a new car but it’s not maintained, that’s key.”” One peculiar discovery is that the pipe appeared to be welded together from small sections of pipe with a seam running its length, Hart said.

    The unique configuration could have made it more vulnerable to leaks or corrosion.

    During the morning news conference, Boxer said PG&E has maps that can show residents if they live close to a pipeline. Residents can ask PG&E for those maps, she said. Meanwhile, all eight schools in the San Bruno Park Elementary District will resume classes Monday after being closed Friday because of the fireball.

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