The Dec. 6 letter from PG&E to residents of San Lucas Way says that PG&E's legal department will become involved if residents do not cooperate with the utility company's plans for clearing a path over the pipeline to allow monitoring using laser-equipped aircraft. PG&E wants to remove trees and bushes over 18 inches in height to prevent root damage to the pipeline, which runs under 16 backyards in the neighborhood behind San Veron Park.
A segment of the same pipeline exploded in San Bruno in 2010, with the resulting fire destroying nearly 40 homes and killing eight people.
Resident Dennis Goldwater says he plans to not cooperate with PG&E, calling the letter an effort to get residents to "give up" on their fight to have the 67-year-old pipeline moved away from their homes.
"He wants to meet people to talk about how they are going to give up," Goldwater said of the PG&E official who wrote the letter. "I plan to just not even talk to them until I see what happens. My plan is try to fight this."
San Lucas Way resident Eileen Telleria said some residents have already given in, sacrificing their landscaping to help prevent a disaster. It would also mean little or no backyard tree shade — the 15-foot-wide easement takes up most of the space in the 16 affected backyards.
"San Bruno was safe, until it wasn't," Telleria said. "They will take legal action against us if we do not support having a potential bomb in our backyard, in our neighborhood."
"When I bought this property I saw trees everywhere, so I decided this a good place to live," said Goldwater, who stands to lose four trees. "Then they come in here and they are just going to strip them all down. I'm planning on re-landscaping everything this year. Now they are going to control how I'd do that. Nothing above 18 inches?"
When he bought his home, he said, "I was under the impression I would have certain rights."
PG&E officials say there's an urgent need to remove the trees.
"When the wind blows that tree over and the roots are around that pipe, what do you think is going to happen?" PG&E official Mike Falk told residents at an October meeting. "It is not going to be a pretty sight."
Falk insisted the pipeline would be safe once trees are removed above it.
According to the letter, "the removal of trees and vegetation from the easement is necessary for PG&E to safely operate and maintain the pipeline. We are also committed to undertaking that effort in a way that recognizes and respects your property as much as possible under these circumstances."
"In the event you are unwilling to to meet with us to informally resolve this issue, PG&E will have no alternative but to take this matter to the next level," the letter says. "If we do not hear from you to schedule a meeting by Dec. 19, 2012, we will have little choice but to refer this matter to our Law Department for further action."
Goldwater questions whether the pipeline easement agreement allows PG&E the legal right to remove trees from people's properties. The agreement, which Goldwater has posted on his website, stoppgelies.com, restricts the construction of structures and wells above the pipeline, but does not mention trees or rights to monitor the pipeline from the sky.
"I don't think it allows what they are trying to do," Goldwater said. "Otherwise they would have come in here and been nicer about it." Instead, "they lied and they intimidated us."
Goldwater and some of his neighbors say PG&E officials initially told residents that it would cost $1 billion per mile to move the pipeline and that if neighbors didn't agree to remove trees in their backyards, PG&E would "trench" their yards and their trees would die anyway.
Goldwater says that if PG&E were to install the pipeline today, it would not be allowed to be so close to his home. He believes the pipe is likely in poor condition and poses a serious danger.
"This pipe was laid 20 years before there was any state regulations at all," Goldwater said. "Now state regulations are strict about laying pipelines where people live."