Mountain View Voice

News - October 5, 2012

Tensions high in PG&E pipeline meeting

by Daniel DeBolt

Residents had heated exchanges with PG&E officials at a meeting Tuesday evening San Lucas Way over plans to strip their backyards over a major gas line. Residents said they fear for their safety in case of an explosion like the one in San Bruno in 2010 that killed eight people.

"At first I was upset over trees," said one of the neighbors. "Now I fear for my life."

PG&E officials tried to convince the residents that backyard tree roots, especially of older trees that have been allowed to grow for decades, posed an immediate threat to their safety.

"When the wind blows that tree over and the roots are around that pipe, what do you think is going to happen?" said PG&E official Mike Falk. "It is not going to be pretty sight."

Residents expressed frustration with PG&E's insistence that the pipeline not be relocated to Middlefield Road, requiring them to lose all their trees instead. Neighbors said they were not satisfied with PG&E assurances that the pipeline had been pressure tested and found to be safe. The deadly San Bruno incident "changed everything," said Eileen Telleria.

It feels like PG&E is "budgeting our safety," Telleria said. "If something were to happen when you are not inspecting it, we are dead. Then you will have to do something different."

"I get calls from people telling me they are losing sleep every night because of their fears," said her husband, Beto Telleria.

Since 1944, PG&E has had the 15-foot wide easement, which runs through 16 backyards near San Veron Park for a 24-inch diameter pipeline — line 132 — the same line that exploded in San Bruno. As part of renewed safety efforts, PG&E now says numerous older trees have to be removed from over the pipeline, trees which have provided shade and a sense of comfort for decades.

"I just don't want anybody walking out of here with the idea that the first thing we should do is remove the pipeline," said Falk.

"You said it was an option," said one resident. "No one told us it was an option."

Easement debate

The utility company wants the easement to be clear to allow an aerial view for laser-equipped aircraft to inspect the pipeline, which now done monthly, Falk said. But neighbors say PG&E doesn't have a right to an aerial view in their easement agreement because such technology didn't exist in 1944. Instead they say it can be inspected on foot.

Eileen Telleria claimed that the easement agreement actually did not mention trees.

"We don't agree we are violating the easement," neighbor Dennis Goldwater said. "The easement makes it clear trees are allowed."

He said he would like to know how much money it could cost to relocate the gas line because "you are facing an expensive legal fight. Compensating us for the cost of changing our agreement will be enormous."

Same story

At the meeting it was made clear that any structure, tree or piece of vegetation over 18 inches in height could pose a problem for the pipeline, which is buried several feet under their backyards.

"We could show you pictures that would really scare you of what we've found in the last four months," Falk said. "Living, breathing vegetation emits acid into a water-filled soil. That's not good for bare steel."

One neighbor said a realtor "guaranteed" that the known existence of the pipeline would mean a sharp drop in the price of her home, but PG&E officials said that wasn't the case.

"Why does a small group like us have to pay the ultimate price for our city?" said the neighbor, who didn't want to be named. "Why can't you just ante up and get this thing out of our yards so we get to live the way our neighbors get to?"

The meeting was called by public works director Mike Fuller as a way to make sure all the residents were told "the same story" by PG&E. Goldwater claimed PG&E had been trying the "divide and conquer" approach in meeting with each household, while others claimed PG&E was "bullying" them by threatening to dig up the pipe and kill their trees, and "lying" to them about the cost of moving the pipeline, quoted to some as costing $1 million a foot. "Really? Do you think we're that stupid?" said one neighbor.

Kenneth Hauck, a resident of a condo complex at 1963 Rock Street, also raised concerns about losing several smaller trees that screen his backyard because they sit over another gas pipeline, line 109. Falk said that line is set to be relocated next year.

"I'm still going to lose every tree in my backyard even though you are going to be taking the pipeline out," Hauck said.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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