Page One

Berkeley's Experience with Gas Leaks

By Steven Finacom
Monday September 13, 2010 - 06:31:00 PM

When I first saw the news of the gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno on September 9, 2010 it seemed very close to home.

I grew up a couple of miles away from there, but the home I thought of first was my current Berkeley residence and an eerily similar situation that had played out along my block, fortunately without disastrous consequences, several years ago. 

Several of us smelled gas along our south central Berkeley block. The smell was faint and seemed to come and go but we smelled it frequently enough that it became a topic of sidewalk conversation. People checked around their homes and couldn’t find anything amiss. The smell was always outside along the street, not near the houses. 

We called PG & E and workers came to investigate with little hand held devices that “sniffed” up and down the cracked pavement (the street has since been repaved). Eventually, larger crews came and started trenching. They dug up much of the center of the street. 

It was then we learned that a large gas pipeline servicing southeast Berkeley ran up the middle of our east / west block. It was buried several feet deep. The trench was impressive, especially as the crews kept extending it along the block exposing more and more of the pipe as they looked for the exact source of the elusive leak. 

My recollection is that the workers said it was either a 16 or 19 inch diameter pipe. That’s not much more than half the size of the one that blew up in San Bruno but it still seemed a shocking size for a Berkeley residential street. None of us had known previously what was buried under our pavement. 

Eventually the crews found something. I think it was a small crack or seam through which gas had seeped out and into the soil above, eventually reaching the pavement and open air. It was repaired, the trench was filled in, and the excavation repaved. 

I don’t remember any formal communication to the neighbors from PG & E during this event. Everything we heard came from conversations with the workers who were doing the actual investigation and repairs. 

Today, I imagine, PG & E workers and contractors would probably be warned not to say anything to the neighbors, and some official spokesperson might appear with soothing words. 

Our block, in retrospect, was fortunate. Our incident came and passed in almost a routine manner. But the explosion in San Bruno and the resulting deaths and devastating fire there should be a caution to us all. 

Reportedly it took hours to shut off the gas fueling the enormous blowtorch that incinerated part of the Crestmoor neighborhood and kept firefighters back from the center of the explosion area. And, also reportedly, residents of the area had smelled gas outside, just as we did, and wondered where it was coming from. 

San Bruno is a relatively suburban city. Most of the homes are smaller single family structures spaced out along wide streets. The area where the blast and fire occurred also had a fair amount of undeveloped open space separating the residential blocks from adjacent areas. 

Berkeley, in contrast, is a very densely built city. A similar explosion on a Berkeley block affecting a similar area might burn or damage scores of buildings and hundreds of housing units and spread for blocks across narrow streets where the buildings are closely spaced. 

It was reported this week that PG & E has been ordered to inspect its enormous network of natural gas pipelines in California. Authorities in Berkeley should be vitally interested in this work. 

Berkeley has experienced at least one fatal gas leak and explosion in the past. December 4, 1931, an abandoned residential gas line left over from, and forgotten after, the 1923 Berkeley Fire began to leak and filled a newer house at 2600 Cedar Street with gas. The Berkeley Fire Department responded and a crowd gathered on the adjacent streets, attracted by the fire engines. A huge explosion killed one fireman and a 16 year old spectator, and seriously injured many others, including more than a dozen firemen and Chief George Haggerty and numerous children. The house and two fire trucks were wrecked and debris was thrown hundreds of feet, damaging houses blocks away  

Fortunately, there was no fire, probably because the force of the blast blew out any flames and the little residential gas line was itself too small to re-ignite the area. 

To avoid disasters similar to that in San Bruno, at the least, the City of Berkeley should know—or should find out—the following: 

- Where are the larger gas mains that run through Berkeley and what are their capacities? There may be one down your street, just as we found there was one in ours. * 

- The age, status, condition, and PG & E inspection and repair schedule for those mains. 

- Emergency procedures for dealing with a gas explosion and fire of this type. 

- PG & E procedures for shutting off the supply to larger gas mains in the event of a leak or fire. Why the main in San Bruno burned so long is the most troubling question for me to come out of this disaster. 

In the meantime, if you smell tell-tale gas outside, call PG & E. If they are not of assistance, I would suggest calling the Berkeley Fire Department or the Department of Public Works to ask what they advise. For a time at least, before the inevitable fading of disaster memories, people and agencies may be attentive to this issue. 


* A report on the Berkeleyside website, posted September 13, shows the approximate locations of two large pipelines that run north / south through West Berkeley but missed the smaller, but still substantial, east / west pipeline through my Berkeley neighborhood.