While the deadly San Bruno explosion highlighted the potential hazards of PG&E's natural gas lines, another enormous system of pipes -- carrying jet fuel and other hazardous liquids under Bay Area neighborhoods -- poses a danger that could be just as catastrophic.
That's because many people, including emergency responders, aren't sure where the private companies that own those pipes have buried them.
When a Walnut Creek construction crew's backhoe bit into an underground gasoline main in 2004, the fireball that resulted left five people dead and four others badly burned. The workers didn't know the pipe was there. Seven years later, the same thing could happen again, said Luke Ellis, an attorney who represented the family of Tae Chin Im, who was killed in the blast.
"There are a lot of lines where people don't know they are near their schools or homes or hospitals," Ellis said. "You hit one of these things and you can have a catastrophic event."
Even local government officials don't always know the precise whereabouts of hazardous liquid pipelines. The California State Fire Marshal's Office fielded numerous calls from fire departments seeking to learn those locations after the Sept. 9 San Bruno natural gas disaster, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
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"These calls caused some concern" because a 1988 law requires hazardous liquid pipeline owners to give local officials maps of their pipe networks, the fire marshal noted in a report in May. It discovered many fire departments "had outdated maps and old contact lists" or hadn't distributed more recent information to all their employees.
The number of leaks in California involving such hazardous liquids as gasoline, jet fuel, crude oil and diesel fuel has dropped from nearly 50 in 1994 to fewer than five annually in recent years, according to the Fire Marshal's Office, which oversees the lines. State officials say that's largely because companies have improved how they inspect and maintain their lines.
Moreover, many people think moving hazardous liquid by pipes is safer than by trucks, an argument Wickland Pipelines made last year in winning approval to install a jet fuel line through North San Jose to the airport. Wickland said its pipe would eliminate 76 daily trips by trucks on busy city streets.
Nonetheless, many people remain confused about the precise location of such lines.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that excavation problems from 2005 to 2009 resulted in 71 "significant" accidents involving hazardous liquid pipelines nationwide, meaning they caused death or major injury, evacuations or highway closures. But critics say that understates the problem.
A federally sponsored study by the industry group Common Ground Alliance counted 320 excavation complications involving hazardous liquid pipelines in 2009 alone, the year for which the most recent data is available.
Accidents involving such pipes are especially worrisome because they can be hard to contain.
"The liquid has the ability to rupture and flow for a long distance before it ignites," said Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust, which was formed after a Bellingham, Wash., gasoline pipe, previously damaged by a backhoe, burst in 1999, creating a 1½-mile-long inferno that killed two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old man. When such ruptures occur, it's "much harder to predict how far the danger zone is around them," Weimer said.
The Nov. 9, 2004, Walnut Creek disaster was among the worst ever recorded. While building a water main, a construction crew's backhoe hit a gasoline line that runs between Concord and San Jose. Ignited by nearby welding torches, flaming fuel spewed 60 feet into the air.
Although the contractor and the East Bay Municipal Utility District were fined, Houston-based Kinder Morgan was mostly blamed for not properly marking its fuel pipe's location for the workers. The company -- which has pipes throughout the Bay Area as well as hazardous liquid storage tanks in San Jose, Brisbane and Oakland -- was fined $15 million and paid millions of dollars more in legal claims after pleading no contest to six labor-code felonies.
Canadian authorities leveled similar allegations against Kinder Morgan in 2009. They accused the company of failing to accurately describe the location of its crude-oil pipe, which was ruptured two years earlier by a contractor digging a storm sewer trench in Burnaby, British Columbia. No one was hurt, but the oil contaminated shore birds and prompted 250 residents to flee their homes. Kinder Morgan contends others were responsible and a trial on the accident is pending.
Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Emily Mir Thompson said her company is dedicated to doing business safely and described its pipeline operations as among the industry's best, adding that the firm periodically consults with public officials and residents about its pipes.
Hoping to relieve the confusion it recently discovered among fire officials, the state is considering setting up a website with pipeline-location details, said Bob Gorham, a division chief with the fire marshal. But, he said, access will be limited to emergency officials.
For others, Thompson recommends checking the federal National Public Mapping System at www.npms.phmsa.dot.gov or, if planning a dig, calling 811, a number created under a government program to help prevent utility line damage.
Though the national mapping system provides a general idea of pipe locations, its "target accuracy" is plus or minus 500 feet. And counting on 811, which relies on information companies submit about the whereabouts of their pipes, isn't foolproof. That's because, according to Common Ground Alliance President Bob Kipp, "in some cases, the mapping provided by the owner-operator is incorrect."
Despite its limitations, 811 remains a vital way to prevent hazardous liquid accidents, said Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust. But pipeline companies also need to do a better job updating 811 and informing the public about the location of their pipes, he said, "instead of just blaming the excavators all the time."
Contact Steve Johnson at 408-920-5043.