When Herb Felsenfeld and his wife, Gail Newman, look out the window of the Bernal Heights home they've lived in for more than 30 years, they see a vacant hilly lot grown in with tall grass, stretching up in the direction of nearby Bernal Heights Park.
The surrounding area has become quite popular. Earlier this year, real estate firm Redfin crowned Bernal Heights the nation's No. 1 "hottest neighborhood," its desirability ranked using "a combination of big-data analysis and real-life human experience," according to the company blog.
There are plans to build two new single-family homes on the slope directly above them, causing a bit of a neighborhood stir. But one detail about this particular site — perched high atop Folsom Street on the eastern slope of Bernal Hill — has neighbors on edge.
Below the surface, extending up a 35 percent grade, is a natural gas pipeline owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Property records designate it as Line 109, and it traverses the Bernal Heights neighborhood from farther south, running up Folsom Street. Two orange-and-white striped markers stake out its trajectory uphill, with an orange sticker on the back proclaiming, "Warning: Gas Pipeline."
It's serviced the area for at least 30 years, perhaps much longer, qualifying it as an aging piece of infrastructure. Felsenfeld, Newman, and neighbor Deborah Gerson say they're worried that performing excavation on the slope for a road and new home foundations poses a safety threat.
Newman said she was especially perplexed by the San Francisco Planning Department's issuance of a waiver of an environmental impact review, which is routine for a project of this size, citing no unusual circumstances. "I'm like, wait a minute," she said. "There's a pipeline here."
One would think that any sort of risk would be eliminated by routine safety protocols. But it gets complicated when one considers that PG&E is under federal indictment for criminal negligence for its alleged failure to keep up with pipeline maintenance, due in part to sloppy recordkeeping. There may indeed be little risk involved with the new construction at this site — but then again, the neighbors' concerns raise questions about whether adequate measures are in place to guarantee safety in this and other situations.
The criminal charges facing PG&E that were filed March 31 stem from an investigation launched in the wake of a fatal 2010 explosion in San Bruno caused by a pipeline rupture, which killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood. The utility is fighting the charges in court and has reportedly invested $2.7 billion in shareholder dollars toward safety improvements since.
But according to the results of a regulatory audit on PG&E's assessment of its own pipeline records that was undertaken to set things straight after the tragic explosion, crucial pipeline information is still missing or flawed, as the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported.
"Given the San Bruno disaster and the recent media revelations about PG&E's pipes, we are wondering what information you have gathered on this subject," Felsenfeld wrote in a letter to one of the housing developers, Fabien Lannoye. "Where exactly is Pipeline No. 109? How deeply is No. 109 buried? What is Pipeline No. 109 composed of? How big in diameter is Pipeline 109? How/with what are the pipe seams welded?"
He sent the same set of questions to PG&E. So far, Felsenfeld hasn't received any answers. PG&E has also been stonewalling the developer's information requests.
Lannoye, who is building one of the two new houses, described the project as a two-story, single-family home where he hopes to live with his wife and two children. He said he understands the neighbors' concerns about safety, but also believes they are organizing in an effort to prevent him from moving forward.