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PG&E Pipeline Maps Reveal Berkeley is the East Bay’s Most Endangered City

By Gar Smith
Wednesday June 29, 2011 - 02:29:00 PM
Blue lines are Natural Gas Transmission Pipelines.  Green lines are Pipeline Segments in High Consequence Areas which have documentation or test records. Gray-outlined green line heading south from Berkeley through Emeryville is due to be "tested and replaced" in 2011.
Blue lines are Natural Gas Transmission Pipelines. Green lines are Pipeline Segments in High Consequence Areas which have documentation or test records. Gray-outlined green line heading south from Berkeley through Emeryville is due to be "tested and replaced" in 2011.

Natural gas pipelines — like the one that erupted in a deadly 2010 blast that killed eight people in San Bruno — run along the margins of West Berkeley, parallel to the Eastshore Freeway. This has been known for some time but earlier this week, PG&E quietly mailed letters to a number of Berkeley businesses and residents warning that they may be located “within 2,000 feet of a natural gas transmission pipeline.” A Planet investigation reveals that several PG&E gas lines lie buried beneath 31 city blocks, with one major pipeline running right through the downtown — alongside the Police Department, City Hall, the Main Post Office, BART and the Shattuck Hotel. 

In a self-confessed attempt “to earn back the trust and confidence of our customers,” PG&E’s new president, Chris Johns, recently mailed an advisory letter to occupants of “homes and businesses located within about 2,000 feet of a natural gas transmission pipeline.” As a business recipient of PG&E’s effort to “enhance public safety awareness,” I received one of these alerts at my downtown Berkeley office. My initial response to PG&E’s attempt at “outreach,” was frustration as the critical information about the location of the nearest gas pipelines proved difficult to locate. After some dogged digging, however, my reaction turned to from frustration to utter shock. 

The phrase, “located within about 2,000 feet” of a pipeline, was clearly designed to grab attention. It appeared at the top right of the letter in large, bold, blue type. 

PG&E’s letter offered the following invitation: “To learn more about the location of our gas transmission pipelines, view our comprehensive online maps at” 

Despite the promise to provide “information we can all use to help prevent accidents,” this link does not provide any pipeline locations. It simply leads to a 36-page letter onLong Range Gas Transmission Pipeline Planning Input Top 100 Segments – 2007-2009” sent from PG&E VP Brian K. Cherryto the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and dated March 9, 2011. 

PG&E’s one-page alert also recommends a second Website — the National Pipeline Mapping System ( PG&E calls the NPMS a “useful tool” for people seeking information about natural gas transmission lines “county by county.” But a visit to the Website quickly reveals the NPMS is vastly over-rated. These maps reveal only the largest pipelines. Furthermore, the depiction of the larger lines turns out to be inconsistent with other maps of pipelines running through the East Bay. (There is, for instance, a pipeline that runs from the vicinity of Brookfield Village to service the Oakland International Airport. This line does not appear on the Federal map.) 

There is another built-in limitation to the NPMS maps (presumably designed to thwart terrorists) that renders them useless for anyone seeking detailed information. As spelled out in this federal disclaimer: “When you are zoomed in closer than a 1:24,000 scale (approximately 0.2 miles on the scale bar), you will notice that the pipelines have disappeared from the map. In order to see the pipelines, you must either zoom out or set the scale to 1:24,000 or a greater number. Data cannot be downloaded from the Public Viewer.” 

A second link on PG&E’s “pipelinelocations” Website invites visitors to “Download the Top 100 maps” ( This leads to a Zip file containing pdf maps that are identified only by numbers, not locations. (Because PG&E’s March 9 letter to the PUC only makes reference to 17 of the maps contained in the “Top 100” Zip file, most of these downloads are useless. Adding to the confusion, the “Top 100” list contains only 70 maps.) 

Where Are the Maps? 

In Mr. Cherry’s 36-page letter, a segment of the natural gas infrastructure called “Pipeline L107” is identified as being located in “Alameda” and is linked to “Map 2.” Opening this pdf file produces a map that shows a vast swatch of land — ranging from San Leandro to Tracy and Danville to Milpitas. While the county boundaries and roads are clearly marked, the pipelines are not. The only indication of the presence of a pipeline is a small, green mark drawn on the map just outside the southeast corner of the town of Livermore. Here, the document notes, PG&E plans to “convert this section from transmission pipeline to distribution feeder main.” 

Another segment, located southeast of the town of Scott’s Corner, near Sunol, was apparently placed on a watch list for corrosion in 2008. Happily, PG&E’s March 2011 document notes: “The external corrosion risk for segment 140 was reduced based on inspection of its coating condition, causing this segment not to appear on the 2009 list.” It was not explained how a simple inspection could reduce a corrosion problem. 

A similar situation is recorded for a section of pipe buried near Airport Way in Manteca: “The external corrosion risk for this segment was reduced based on investigation of pipe strength and wall thickness, causing this segment not to appear on the 2008 and 2009 lists.” 

PG&E also records other instances where existing problems were written off through the simple art of reevaluation. Referring to a pipeline in Fremont, PG&E informed the PUC: “The ground movement risk for this segment was reduced based on PG&E’s system-wide reassessment of US Geological Survey data on the severity of erosion, including in the area in which this segment lies, causing this segment not to appear on the 2009 list.” It is unclear whether the USGS was consulted and, if so, whether it agreed with the utility’s “reassessment” of the government’s view on ground-movement risks. 

Here Is PG&E’s Missing Link 

A call to the toll-free number in Chris Johns’ letter (1-888-743-7431) connects callers to the Information Hotline for Gas Transmission Locations at PG&E’s Fresno office. This office refused to reveal whether there were gas lines near a hypothetical intersection of “Addison and Sacramento” without the caller first providing “a PG&E account number.” The service agent offered to mail a map, claiming that the map contained information on the dates the pipelines were first installed but had no information on when the gas routes were last inspected. 

For any readers who may receive this PG&E mailing, allow the Daily Planet to save you some time and frustration. Here’s the skinny: In order to locate a map of PG&E’s East Bay gas lines, it is necessary to go to the following link: 

(Inexplicably, this link was not mentioned in Chris Johns’ letter nor was it referenced in PG&E’s new brochure, “Important Things to Know about Natural Gas Safety.” (Another link to PG&E’s interactive maps can be found at: 

An inspection of these pipeline maps (once withheld from public scrutiny by PG&E, under the pretext of “national security”) reveals some troubling information. Previously, it was believed that most of PG&E’s gas pipelines were located parallel to the Eastshore Freeway but these new maps show two parallel lines that burrow beneath more than 50 city blocks inside Berkeley proper. PG&E’s natural gas pipelines also lie buried beneath residential and commercial areas in Emeryville, El Cerrito and Oakland. 

Cities at Risk 

An Emeryville pipeline runs nearly two miles down Hollis, past the East Baybridge Shopping Center and under the MacArthur Freeway. If a rupture were to occur along this line, it could put at risk a number of local landmarks ranging from the Emeryville Community Organic Garden to the Pixar Animation Studios. 

In El Cerrito, the hidden pipeline runs parallel the west end of El Cerrito Plaza before angling down the Central Avenue corridor to the Eastshore Freeway. 

Another series of welded pipes sits buried beneath West Oakland, running 12 blocks down Linden Street — from 32nd to Acorn. The pipeline runs beneath Lowell Park before angling east to Market Street and continuing south beneath the busy 880 freeway. 

In Berkeley, a southern route diverts from a larger pipeline system that begins at Seventh and Heinz and crosses Ashby before jagging west on Folger to follow Hollis through Emeryville. (If there were a rupture on this southern link, it could take out a number of high-profile sites including Ashby Lumber, Berkeley Bowl West, Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, Mancini’s Sleepworld, OSH, and John F. Kennedy University. 

Berkeley’s Hidden Gas Lines 

A major HCA (High Consequence Area) pipeline under Seventh Street runs the length of Berkeley. (At its northern end, the Seventh Street line turns east at Harmon, detours to Jackson and continues north to Hillside Avenue at the foot of Albany Hill Park.) On its path through Berkeley, the Seventh Street line begets several natural gas tributaries that thrust west into the city’s old industrial sectors — at Grayson, Carleton and Parker. 

As the Seventh Street pipeline reaches the James Kennedy Recreation Center, it sends another spur to the west, running down Virginia for five blocks, nearly reaching the Eastshore Freeway. There also is an odd, disembodied fragment of pipeline shown running alongside the Seventh Street HCA line just north of Gilman. 

But of greater concern are the two pipe systems that work their way east through Berkeley’s densely populated residential areas. The shorter of the two lines extends east from San Pablo Avenue and runs for ten blocks along Russell Street, passing the south end of San Pablo Park before ending abruptly at McGee Street. 

The longer stretch of buried pipeline begins in West Berkeley near Seventh and Allston Way (close to Black Pine Circle School). It is here that PG&E’s Seventh Street feeder lines branch off to send more than two miles of gas-filled pipes through the heart of Berkeley. 

How PG&E Puts Berkeley at Risk 

From Seventh Street, Berkeley’s major gas pipeline travels due east, traveling 21 blocks below the pavement of Allston Way until it reaches the western boundary of UC Berkeley. At this point it bifurcates, with one line continuing into the UC campus and another segment traveling north on Oxford for five blocks. (The map of the Allston Way line shows an anomaly between McGee and Roosevelt, where a short segment of pipe juts off to the south.) 

Berkeley’s buried gas line could hardly have been placed in a more central location. In addition to running through densely packed urban neighborhoods, it also penetrates the very heart of the city, running right alongside the Berkeley Police Department, City Hall and within one block of the Berkeley Public Library. If there were a gas line rupture along the western tip of this pipeline at Allston Way and Seventh, the 2,000-foot impact zone would engulf not only scores of local homes but a commercial district that would stretch from Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto to the Lanesplitters Pub on Sacramento. 

An accident further east would expose every business on University Avenue (and many homes on either side of this major artery) to potential disaster. Strawberry Creek Park straddles the pipeline while other landmarks, including the Berkeley Community Theatre, the Main Post Office, the Shattuck Hotel and other downtown landmarks, share a front-row seat next to the buried pipeline. 

If we were to map a 2,000-foot circle around the intersection of Allston Way and Shattuck, PG&E’s “impact zone” would run from University Avenue to the north and Durant Avenue to the south and from MLK Jr. Way to the west to Dwinelle Hall on the Berkeley Campus. (If a rupture and explosion were to occur in the pipeline section that lies buried inside UC’s boundaries, the 2,000-foot impact zone would envelope the entire Berkeley campus.) 

A rupture and explosion at Allston Way and Shattuck would endanger the Berkeley Community College, the downtown BART Station (the pipeline crosses the BART subway line) and the more than 100 downtown businesses, including the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Freight & Salvage, Scandinavian Designs, University Hall and “Berkeley’s Greenest Building,” the David Brower Center. The Brower Center is located at the very corner where the buried gas line makes a sharp 90-degree turn to the north before a second welded pipeline shunts high-pressure gas east, into the western third of the Berkeley campus. 

Faulting PG&E: We Need to Demand More 

Since 1986, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has found PG&E responsible for 132 “significant incidents”– incidents that resulted in 18 deaths, 64 injuries, and $41 million in property damage. Given the scale of death and destruction PG&E’s buried gas pipelines have already caused in Rancho Cordova in 2008 (one killed) and San Bruno in September 2010 (eight killed, more than 50 injured, 40 homes incinerated), it is imperative that Berkeley demand a through accounting to insure the safety of the aging pipelines that now lies hidden beneath the pavement, parks and schools of the city. 

On February 15, Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin called on the city to require PG&E to “identify the size, condition, age, location and last inspection dates of all natural gas pipelines in Berkeley that cross the Hayward fault.” The recommendation also called on PG&E to “install shut-off valves on pipelines crossing the fault.” 

As good as that recommendation was, these new revelations show that the demand for accountability did not go nearly far enough. According to PG&E’s own maps, none of their pipelines actually cross the Hayward Fault. The eastern-most pipeline terminates about 600-feet inside the UC Campus, where it apparently feeds the University’s Central Heating Plant. 

The City needs to compel PG&E to account for all the existing natural gas pipelines that currently underlie our neighborhoods — irrespective of the Hayward Fault. We need to know the condition of all these buried pipes and we need to demand that PG&E provide rigorous inspection, conscientious maintenance and, if needed, expeditious replacement of substandard pipes. In the meantime, automatic shut-off systems should be required on all existing natural gas lines within the city of Berkeley. 

Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and the winner of several Project Censored Awards. He is also the author of “Nuclear Roulette,” a recently published report from International Forum on Globalization (