WALNUT CREEK -- A natural gas pipeline runs through Charlotte Wilson's rental property in unincorporated Walnut Creek, only a few feet from the house on it.
Wilson didn't realize the pipeline was there until just over a year ago, when she was first contacted by Pacific Gas and Electric.
Since then, the Walnut Creek resident has dealt with PG&E contractors relocating the 900-square-foot garage from one side of the property to the other, trees taken down, an awning removed, concrete poured, then ripped up and put in again after disagreements over a sewer line -- all in the name of pipeline safety.
Wilson said she understood the need for the work. But after the headaches of dealing with the contractors, losing tenants and money and now being asked to sign a legal agreement that gives the company some liability release, she is at her wit's end.
"It has just been a nightmare," she said. "And now if I don't sign it, I don't know what will happen."
The work on Wilson's property is all part of PG&E's $500 million Pipeline Pathways project, which calls for clearing obstructions from the utility's 6,750 miles of underground gas lines stretching from Bakersfield to Eureka. PG&E says it needs to remove the trees, shrubs and structures on private and public property to ensure pipeline safety -- a top priority after the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
While city officials have complained about the prospect of thousands of trees being removed, Wilson claims the project has been a bureaucratic headache that will affect the value of her property for decades to come.
But PG&E officials say they are working with homeowners who have structures on the easements and that the utility's main focus is ensuring safety.
"The customer's safety, that of her neighbors and the community as a whole is why we're doing this important gas safety work," said PG&E Spokesman Greg Snapper. "That is why it is important for us to continue taking the time to reach an agreement with our customer that allows her structure to safely remain in our easement."
But the lengthy encroachment agreement is filled with language that makes Wilson nervous. An example: If she uses the easement -- on which the home and part of the relocated garage sit -- and something happens with the line, she is at fault, and PG&E is not liable. She then could not sue the utility.
Snapper said the agreement only holds the homeowner responsible if he or she damages the pipeline.
Wilson contends that PG&E lawyers should "write it that way, then." Further, she questions the need for such an agreement now.
PG&E was granted the easement in 1951. Wilson's husband purchased the home in the 1980s. Nothing should have been built on the easement, but a portion of the home was, and a garage was added right over the pipeline -- all with the proper permits, Wilson said.
"The scary part is they were building right on top of the pipeline, and there was no marking at all," she said.
Snapper did not want to delve into the history.
"In the past, we could have done better maintaining the area above our pipelines, which is why we're doing this important gas safety work now -- at our expense -- to ensure the safety of our customers and the communities we serve," he said.
Wilson is hopeful the ordeal is almost over. PG&E has reimbursed her for electrical work, and she's expecting a check shortly for the loss of trees and landscaping the utility had to take out. Though she says that at first she was told by PG&E officials she had to sign the encroachment agreement before being paid back, that is no longer the case she was told last week.
And the agreement specifically states that the California Public Utilities Commission must approve the document for it to become final because any proposed use of PG&E property is governed in part by the PUC.
The number of other property owners with structures over the pipeline in the area isn't clear because much of the work to determine that is still being done, Snapper said.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617.
To see where PG&E's gas pipelines run, go to www.pge.com/safety/systemworks/gas/transmissionpipelines.