City of Sacramento fails to disclose potentially dangerous gas-line breaks
Incidents occurred during costly and controversial water-meter install project
The city’s water-meter instillation program has, during the past two-and-a-half years, experienced at least a half-dozen accidents with severed or damaged gas lines. The most serious of these incidents created potential “blast zones,” which needed to be evacuated and could have led to explosions in neighborhoods like Little Pocket, Land Park, East Sacramento and Curtis Park.
The Department of Utilities also appears to have withheld information about these incidents, even when details were known at the department’s highest levels.
After two gas-line incidents in Land Park this past fall involving Teichert Construction, SN&R asked the DOU if any other neighborhoods subject to Sacramento’s costly and controversial water-meter install had experienced gas-line compromises.
DOU spokeswoman Rhea Serran was specifically asked “if there have been any incidents with gas lines in the Little Pocket area, which required any type of response from PG&E.” The DOU took two weeks to respond because they said they were checking with supervisors overseeing the work, but eventually Serran wrote via email that there were “no gas line hits in the Little Pocket area to date.”
The DOU also relayed this same information to city officials. In December, DOU director Bill Busath met met with City Auditor Jorge Oseguera to discuss the water-meter program, including the gas-line safety issue. Serran prepared for Busath a “water meter fact sheet” to refer to during the meeting. SN&R obtained this sheet and, under the heading “safety,” it also states “no gas lines hit in the Little Pocket construction area to date.”
Oseguera told SN&R that his impression after the meeting was that “given the scale of the project, that there haven’t been an undue amount of problems with gas lines.”
But a September 12 incident report obtained by SN&R directly contradicts the DOU.
The report, written by a city inspector from the public-works department, details the September 12 event. It states that a crew, while excavating, bent a gas line at 961 Piedmont Drive and immediately notified PG&E. “PG&E crews responded and reviewed pipe, PG&E issued Navajo a warning,” which means that the crew failed to properly expose a gas line before digging around it.
PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers confirmed the event, although she stated that the pipe was not badly damaged and that workers triaged it. She noted that PG&E views any incidents that compromise gas lines as potentially serious.
Serran said this week that she was aware of the Little Pocket incident, but that it was decided not to disclose it because “it was a bent pipe, there was no gas leak.” She said that project managers and supervisors were in the loop on what was being disclosed.
The DOU also appears to have withheld information about several other gas-line incidents. The most glaring omission was a 2012 event that was known at the highest levels of the department. SN&R obtained an incident report and emails connected to this accident, which happened in Curtis Park in October of that year and was widely discussed and distributed over email by top DOU brass.
An inspector hired by the city to monitor construction actually witnessed the accident: “As the machine pushed through the soil, a [loud] gush of gas blasted up. The bore machine had hit the gas main,” the inspector wrote in an eight-page report. This report also includes includes photos and details of the incident.
It took a long time to get this situation under control: “gas blew for 2 hours 45 mins which left a large void in the roadway. Many cars and T&S equipment was covered in sand and debris.”
The report describes firefighters showing up on the scene and several homes being evacuated that were determined to be “in a blast zone.”
PG&E’s Ehlers said that this accident was a result of the contractor not following standard safety procedures to expose gas lines before digging.
Former DOU director Dave Brent knew of this incident and, when informed via email that PG&E crews were working into the night, wrote “thank you.” Current DOU director Bill Busath was also in this email loop.
Last October, during an interview with SN&R, Busath said he had no knowledge of any gas-line incidents connected to the water-meter install.
Another Curtis Park incident occurred in January 2013. In that event, homeowner, Shannon McKinney, who was pregnant at the time and had a toddler at home, discovered a leak 48 hours after workers from T&S severed a gas line. The gas line was in her front yard, but gas had built up under her home and she actually detected the powerful smell of gas in her backyard.
Experts say a spark from a water heater or lit match can spur a deadly explosion during these leaks.
PG&E placed the family in a hotel, according to McKinney, because repairs to the gas line lasted until evening.
City Auditor Jorge Oseguera, who issued a 2011 audit critical of the city’s water-meter program, said, “Transparency around safety issues is obviously important.”
But is the DOU not being forthright about gas-line incidents? “I’d reserve judgment until I learn more,” he said.
City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents Little Pocket, Land Park and the central city, said he was frustrated that the city was “clearly … not getting good information.”
SN&R asked the city and the DOU to provide information about any gas-line incidents during the water-meter install over the past five years. The DOU provided information about only three incidents (two in Land Park from this year and one in East Sacramento in 2013).
This past November, SN&R investigated the city’s nearly half-billion-dollar water-meter install and questioned whether much of the costly project was necessary.
After that story, City Manager John Shirey said that he would be reviewing the plan. Shirey said the shakeup in the water-meter install was due to the drought, not the story.
Sacramento’s water-meter install dramatically differs from what other California cities have done. It’s bigger. It’s more expensive. Most of the project actually has to do with infrastructure fixes, rather than the relatively simple process of installing water meters, as mandated by the state.
As part of the original plan, approved in 2005, all backyard water mains in the city were to be abandoned, and 175 miles of roads were slated to be dug up to install new water mains. This work wasn’t slated to be complete until 2025.
Sacramento’s approach necessitates a huge amount of underground drilling and excavation near gas lines. All six gas-line accidents that occurred between 2012 and 2014 appear to be connected to Sacramento’s expansive and expensive plan.
Last November, Shirey told The Sacramento Bee that the city will take a new approach with some backyard mains and leave them in place. He has yet to detail how many areas of the city will be affected.
Sacramento’s water-meter install costs are vastly higher than those in other cities, including nearby Fresno, which already installed a similar number of water meters. Fresno meters had an actual cost of $694 each. Robert Andersen, who led that city’s water-meter install as deputy director of the utilities department, said there was no cost difference between installing water meters in the front yard versus back.
“When we put the water meters in the back, that meant that the shut-offs were there and the main was relatively in good shape,” Andersen wrote. “The landscape replacement costs would be equal.”
Sacramento’s DOU, however, provided revised cost estimates to Shirey this past December. Its fact sheet contends that the cost of installing water meters in backyards would be a whopping $3,100 each. The same fact sheet puts the cost of front yard water meter installs at $1,350.
The cost differences, according to the DOU, are because of landscaping and complications associated with placing water meters in backyards.
City staff is scheduled to present a revised water-meter plan to council this month.