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PG&E officials try to appease uneasy council

- Gas explosion community meeting set for March 26

By MARY SCHLEY

Published: March 21, 2014

PRELIMINARY RESULTS of an investigation into what caused a house at Guadalupe and Third to explode March 3 show that gas leaked from a PG&E main that was being worked on in the street and then accumulated inside the vacant house where it was sparked by the pilot light of a stove, PG&E Vice President Kevin Knapp told the Carmel City Council at a special meeting Tuesday.

He and other officials from the utility company will also talk about the accident and their plans for resuming work replacing gas mains in town at an open house set for Wednesday, March 26, from 4 to 7 p.m. in city hall.

The leak that led to the explosion occurred when a PG&E worker tapped into a gas main he thought was just steel, but it actually contained a plastic insert. As he worked on the line, gas leaked between the steel shell and the plastic lining and followed the main into the home.

“The area of space between the steel and the plastic allows gas to go anywhere,” Knapp explained.

An independent consultant called Exponent is conducting an investigation for PG&E, and Knapp said it will be complete in another two or three weeks. Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission is undertaking its own examination of the explosion that destroyed the house and damaged a couple of nearby homes but miraculously resulted in no injuries.

PG&E officials also told the council they have fielded 23 inquiries related to the accident, and that repairs to adjacent residences have been completed. The home that was destroyed is fenced off.

At the council meeting, Knapp said PG&E officials plan to resume work on replacing the gas mains March 31. But after council members objected, asking him to delay until the investigation is complete and public officials have had a chance to review it, he agreed to postpone construction further.

The council also sought assurance safety measures and protocols would be in place to help prevent further accidents and explosions.

As soon as workers were aware of the problem with the gas line, they called for help. But repair and containment crews arrived in 30 minutes — not soon enough.

“Fifteen minutes after the drilling, the house blew,” Knapp confirmed.

“I feel very insecure personally right now in my own house,” said councilwoman Victoria Beach, adding that the company should develop ways to ensure the equipment and people trained to use it can get on scene quickly enough.


Inaccurate maps

The other issue is the inaccuracy of maps of gas lines, and Knapp acknowledged the difficulties of transferring immense amounts of paper records into digital files, as well as testing the accuracy of the documents and drawings, some of which go back more than 100 years. Investigators still have not found documentation of the plastic insert placed in the steel main at Guadalupe and Third.

Burnett said he’s confident “a bunch of smart engineers” are going to create a means of safely drilling into gas lines, no matter their construction or materials, but “the harder problem to solve is the combination of the mapping records management and the protocols for [determining] the actual conditions versus the conditions you think are there,” he said after the meeting.

“The next problem PG&E encounters is going to be different than the problem we encountered here,” he said. “I’ve been encouraging people to have an expansive view of this. It involves a full range of problems that can occur.”

Burnett and the council also decided Carmel Police Chief Mike Calhoun should be the point of contact for concerned residents and PG&E representatives, and that he should review the safety protocols and results of the investigation before work on the gas mains resumes.

“They’re going to provide assurances that they’re putting safety measures in place that will assure the citizens that they’re doing everything they can to prevent this from happening again,” Calhoun told The Pine Cone. “The second component is to review the information they provide me regarding the investigation, to assure that everything is being looked at and handled.”


Welding raises concern

Calhoun has been fielding calls from residents and has been in touch with PG&E officials, whom he said are working hard to be responsive. On Wednesday, for example, Calhoun received a report that PG&E workers were welding in the intersection near the exploded house, and he was able to determine they were merely repairing metal plates that had been loosened by a garbage truck. Calhoun notified utility company officials that a resident had reported the work, and that he had responded and determined the complaint of construction was unfounded.

“They are really concerned that this happened and want to continue to establish a positive working relationship to improve the trust within the citizens,” he said. “I’m very impressed how responsive they are. And they came forward from the very beginning.”

He also encouraged anyone with any questions to call him at the station — (831) 624-6403 — or to call PG&E representative Denise Fink at (408) 510-9452.

“She’s compiling all complaints, responding to them personally, and tracking them for resolution,” he said. “They can call her, or they can call me.”

They can also air their concerns and obtain information at the community open house set for 4 to 7 p.m. March 26 at city hall.