Particular Report: ‘It may turn out to be a San Bruno’ — the explosive downside buried beneath San Francisco properties
“Okay! Are we rolling? Yes, we’re rolling,” starts the recording. “This is the August 8, 2017 meeting of the Structural Subcommittee of the Code Advisory Committee.” A pause. “Rolling? Yes.”
The voice of structural engineer Stephen Harris has all the vim befitting a 9 a.m. meeting of a subcommittee of a committee that is, itself, only an advisory body. As you’d expect, the matters discussed among the engineers, architects, and Department of Building Inspection officials tend toward the highly technical. On this day, the subcommittee would visit possible action regarding concrete anchors, bearing wall systems and post-installed anchor bolts.
These discussions may well involve rivets, but, to the general public, may not be so riveting.
And yet this would go on to be one of the most remarkable meetings in recent San Francisco history. And, far from arcane debates the subject matter would soon turn to grim discussions of houses throughout San Francisco potentially exploding following an earthquake; their residents dying fiery deaths.
All of this was cloaked under the anodyne agenda item “Discussion and possible action on Proposal to Allow Temporary Sleeving of Gas Lines that Pass through New Foundations in Soft-Story Seismic Retrofit Buildings.”
At issue were the 6,700-odd structures caught up in this city’s mandatory retrofitting program that began in 2013. As “soft-story” buildings with weak, flexible ground floors, the city has required substantial strengthening work — often including, as the agenda item notes, new foundations.
The problem arises when gas lines, which entered the building unencumbered through dirt or sand — perhaps since the days before electric lighting — now find themselves encased in a concrete foundation.
During a seismic event — the very event this retrofitting was undertaken in anticipation of — the gas line would now be held tightly in concrete, creating a new, induced hazard.
“If I blow up the sidewalk I don’t blow up the house. If I kill concrete, I kill concrete. But I don’t kill people.”
Chief plumbing inspector steve panelli
Done properly, gas lines will vertically ascend from the pavement and travel up and over the foundation of a structure’s exterior before entering the building; once you see them on the streets they are hard to unsee. Done properly, all the gas lines in a building will be above ground and accessible.
Done improperly, the lines are encased in the foundation, enveloped in concrete and enter the house “below slab” — underneath concrete floors, where any leaking gas will accumulate. And it will accumulate undetectably, as the rotten-egg smell of the mercaptan additive is filtered and negated by dirt or sand.
Worsening matters, some of these lines are extremely corroded. Former PG&E worker Gary Tucker told us that “you could put your finger through” gas pipes running beneath Mission and Cesar Chavez — and that was in the 1980s.
In short, in its well-placed zeal to stave off the calamity of scads of vulnerable buildings collapsing during an earthquake, San Francisco — a city razed by numerous fires through the ages — has introduced the possibility of scads of vulnerable buildings bursting into flames following an earthquake.
A gas line, in yellow tape, with a new foundation being built around it.
This is not a far-fetched hypothetical: During that early morning 2017 meeting, engineer Charles Perry confirmed that the problem of existing gas lines passing through new foundations is occurring on “pretty much every project” on his soft-story retrofits. What’s more, Perry confirmed, rather than deal with potential monthslong delays induced by alerting PG&E, contractors’ “usual solution” is to “pour the concrete and cross your fingers … It’s a silly game and everyone is doing something illegal and unsafe instead of saying, ‘look, let’s acknowledge the situation.’”
Perry went on to state that some San Francisco building inspectors allow concrete to be poured, encasing gas lines in foundations, and some do not. But, regardless, some contractors don’t much seem to care, and pour regardless.
“This morning, the inspector said ‘don’t do this,’” Perry said, recounting an instance on the very day of the 2017 meeting. “I walk out there, the concrete is poured, and I’m going ‘what the fuck!’”
At this point, San Francisco was four years and thousands of jobs into its mandatory soft-story retrofit program, with thousands of jobs yet to come.
“I walk out there, the concrete is poured, and I’m going ‘what the fuck!’”
Engineer Charles Perry
The ramifications here are chilling. Or, more correctly, burning: Steve Panelli, the Department of Building Inspection’s chief plumbing inspector, told the structural subcommittee that this situation was “unsafe” and a “life-safety issue.”
“These are high-pressure lines,” he continued. “It could become, it could become…”
Panelli’s Building Department colleague David Leung finished the thought for him.
“It could become a San Bruno.”
Panelli concurred. “If one little leak happened and something happened here — it becomes catastrophic now. … It snowballs.”
In September 2010, a PG&E pipeline exploded in the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno, killing eight people and sending a fireball 1,000 feet in the air.
You would think the possibility of even something remotely as destructive and lethal — and costly — occurring in multiple San Francisco locations, all across town, would become a front-burner issue. You would think the tenants of these buildings, stuck paying the pass-through for costly seismic work, would want some surety that the investment was keeping them safer.
But, by and large, they’d never be in a position to know, let alone ask: Despite multiple pledges of a “pow-wow” with PG&E officials, this matter was never again brought up by the structural subcommittee.
“That is something that fell off the table. We let it drop without thinking about it.”
Structural Engineer Stephen Harris
“That is something that fell off the table,” Harris, the structural engineer and committee chair, confirmed to me in April 2021. “We let it drop without thinking about it.”
And the Department of Building Inspection didn’t crack down either — and certainly didn’t begin re-examining the many finished jobs for which it had issued Certificates of Final Completion.
In January 2017, then-chief building inspector Patrick O’Riordan wrote a brief dictum for field inspectors encountering a “gas line entering the building in an area where concrete will be poured.”
He offered four sets of instructions: Alert the contractor, inform the Plumbing Inspection Department, and write that Plumbing will be notified on the inspection result.
But it’s the final order that sticks out: “Do not stop the work once you have followed the above protocols.”
By all indications, the work has not stopped. For years.
“I showed up today and a guy had a gas line running right through the foundation. He had an approved set of foundation plans. And he had a concrete pour scheduled for the next day,” a building inspector told me in April 2021.
“I said, ‘I can’t stop you.’”
A gas line within a new concrete foundation
San Francisco’s mandatory soft-story retrofit program, initiated in 2013, has undoubtedly strengthened thousands of city buildings to the point that they’ll withstand the next Big One.
The question, however, looms regarding just what’ll become of those standing buildings immediately following the quake.
Within the Department of Building Inspection, an internal debate had roiled regarding the merits of making a structure safer for an earthquake vs. leaving that structure — and its neighbors — more vulnerable to an earthquake-induced catastrophic gas line failure.
This debate, like the pipes in question, is now buried.
O’Riordan is now the department’s interim director — and an aspirant for the permanent position. He deferred questions to Patrick Hannan, a communications manager in his second week on the job.
When asked why O’Riordan’s dictum specifically instructs inspectors to “not stop the work,” Hannan responded that “In these situations, stopping the work for several months could create an even greater safety hazard.” It could “increase the amount of time the temporary shoring has to be in place to support the structure and potentially compromise the structural integrity of the building. It can also make it difficult or impossible for building tenants and owners to access the garage.”
Veteran building inspectors, however, said that in such a situation, a mere foot-wide portion of the foundation could be left open until the situation is resolved — which would require neither encasing a gas line in concrete nor overburdening of temporary shoring. Temporary shoring, they say, is often not required on soft-story retrofits at all.
Multiple inspectors concurred that specific instructions to “not stop the work” undercut their leverage and left them impotent to alter dangerous situations.
Chief Plumbing Inspector Panelli, for his part, said that “I don’t know that anything has changed” policy-wise since the 2017 meeting when the situation he and others likened to San Bruno was publicly outlined.
Notifications of problematic gas lines to Panelli’s office trigger an intricate jurisdictional pas de deux between the Department of Building Inspection and PG&E. The city is responsible for any gas pipes starting at the meter and running into the property, and PG&E owns the lines from the street up to the meter.
Parsing this grows complex quickly. But this isn’t complex: The calls from building inspectors spotting these pipes aren’t being made often.
Panelli estimates his office received one or two notifications a week at the peak of things several years back — and next to nothing of late.
A source within the plumbing division said that’s no coincidence.
“I don’t think we got the lion’s share. At all.”
This inspector, speaking on terms of anonymity due to fears of retaliation, doubted that anything near a majority of the problematic gas line situations were ever reported to the Plumbing Inspection Division in the first place: “I don’t think we got the lion’s share. At all.”
Multiple building inspectors described this situation as not occasional but prevalent. Many contractors, it seems, cavalierly poured the concrete and crossed their fingers. And, the plumbing source continued, many building inspectors either didn’t know or didn’t care.
“A lot of the building inspectors said don’t stop the pour. Don’t talk to Plumbing. Keep it going,” he said.
Building inspectors who did systematically inform the plumbing department “were transferred out,” says the plumbing source. “They were making noise and that was not the appropriate thing to do.”
Says one building inspector: “We are discouraged from calling on this, because it will slow down the numbers of compliance on the mandatory soft-story program.”
Then-Chief Building Inspector Patrick O’Riordan’s Jan. 26, 2017 dictum
The city boasts that its response rate for this program hovers at 99 percent; both O’Riordan and then-Department of Building Inspection boss Tom Hui were photographed by the news media personally affixing violations to scofflaw soft-story structures at the program’s outset.
It was a feel-good story and the compliance numbers are a source of pride for the department — and were also a means for former director Hui to please former Mayor Ed Lee.
In retrospect, it’s astounding that the city didn’t coordinate with PG&E on the front end in a project in which thousands of structures would be receiving new foundations. Those attending the 2017 structural subcommittee meeting were also puzzled by this — though one engineer cracked “coordination and PG&E in the same sentence?” Everyone laughed.
But that gets to the heart of why everyone appears to have kept the utility giant at an arm’s length. Property owners were given deadlines by the city to retrofit their structures — timelines dictated by the city. These timelines did not account for monthslong delays incurred by PG&E — an outfit with a reputation for taking its time — getting involved in project after project across the city.
“It’s San Francisco. What can you do? You have to learn how to wait.”
Lenny Krasowski, Bedrock construction
Building department officials — many of whom come out of the private construction world — know what private contractors long ago learned about having PG&E get involved in a development, especially without adequate head time: It can slow proceedings to a standstill.
“The delays are massive,” says longtime builder Joe Cassidy. “I’ll be honest: I sued PG&E in San Mateo over delays. We settled privately, but it was a massive settlement. All I can say is it was resolved — but they are a disaster.”
Says Lenny Krasowski of Bedrock Construction, “You just gotta call them and get yourself a person that’s your contact and after that, it’s not so bad. It takes a couple of months.”
This can be a long time to hold tight, especially if a problem with a pipe running through a planned new foundation is discovered shortly before a pour and if the entry to a large, multi-unit building is already excavated.
“It’s San Francisco. What can you do?” continues Krasowski. “You have to learn how to wait.”
Adds Charles Perry, “If Dante wrote Inferno today, he would have a 10th circle of hell and that would be where you deal with PG&E. Sissyphus has nothing on PG&E.” This, he told the structural subcommittee in 2017 — albeit less artfully — is why contractors break the rules and incur risks rather than wait months on end to finish jobs and collect paychecks.
“It’s insane to deal with them so you do anything you can to avoid them,” Perry tells me this month. “You do not want them on your job site.”
Nobody does, it seems. The prospect of slowing mandatory, deadline jobs to a molasses-in-January pace was unpalatable for all parties. Let alone acknowledging lurking suspicions that completed jobs may yet be deeply problematic.
The aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno explosion and fire. Photo by Brocken Inaglory – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
That Aug. 8, 2017 gathering of the Structural Subcommittee of the Code Advisory Committee really was one of the most remarkable meetings in recent San Francisco history — and not just because of the gravity of what was discussed. Or how quickly it was all dropped and forgotten about.
The meeting also stands out for how rapidly the panel of engineers and architects diagnosed the city’s malady and came up with workable cures.
One of the major reasons problematic pipes are discovered only in the ground — necessitating lengthy and costly delays or unlawful, fingers-crossed concrete pours — is that San Francisco does not require utilities to be included on seismic plans submitted prior to work commencing. That’s how a contractor can have approved foundation plans with a gas pipe still running right through it.
Requiring that all utilities being exposed and/or touched be included in plan-check documents is an intuitive solution — and one the 2017 panel surmised on the spot. The panel also suggested, again intuitively, that every project of this sort get on a PG&E waiting list at its onset, so that everybody is working on the same schedule and lengthy and unanticipated delays are eliminated.
“If Dante wrote Inferno today, he would have a 10th circle of hell and that would be where you deal with PG&E. Sissyphus has nothing on PG&E.”
Engineer Charles Perry
None of these solutions has been adopted. Rather, Perry tells me, PG&E has “backed off,” and is allowing aging gas lines to run through foundations in larger, PVC pipe sleeves. PG&E didn’t answer direct questions about this, but such a practice is strictly forbidden in the utility’s lengthy “Green Book.”
When asked about PG&E allowing on a case-by-case basis practices it forbids in writing, Perry sighed and said: “Welcome to the real world.”
And, yes, “sleeving” a pipe through concrete is the very practice the subcommittee discussed in 2017 and which Panelli dismissed as “unsafe.”
In that meeting, Panelli was questioned why sleeving was allowed through pavement but not through structural foundations. He curtly replied: “Because if I blow up the sidewalk I don’t blow up the house. If I kill concrete, I kill concrete. But I don’t kill people.”
Our questions to PG&E were shunted to a corporate communications representative. Most of our inquiries went unanswered, but PG&E did confirm that the utility will not hook up gas to a structure without customers applying for and receiving any necessary plumbing permits and “without verifying the pink tag is present and valid” (the “pink tag” is the Department of Building Inspection-issued notification that the house’s gas piping is satisfactory).
And yet, on multiple relevant properties reviewed by Mission Local, the building department issued Certificates of Final Completion on projects in which the documented record contains no notices indicating necessary plumbing permits were applied for nor received, nor had a pink tag been issued. There is, on these sites, no documentation of any compliance with PG&E’s requirements.
Mission Local reviewed numerous properties in which a Notice of Violation was issued, in some instances for issues as specific as “PG&E service pipe is now embedded in a new concrete foundation.”
These Notices of Violation were “abated,” but this conjures up a host of vexing questions: The only way to “abate” a Notice of Violation is to obtain a permit, have it finalized, and present it to the department holding the Notice of Violation. It’s not enough to merely “email PG&E” as so many inspectors prescribe on their reports.
Abating a Notice of Violation without taking these steps — without, it seems, ensuring corrective action was actually undertaken — is a deviation from Department of Building Inspection policy.
“It becomes catastrophic now. … It snowballs.”
Chief plumbing inspector Steve Panelli
But, on site after site, there is no documentation of permits having been obtained and finalized. This muddies the answer to the questions that you’d most want to know: Has this situation with the concrete-encased gas line actually been abated? Is everything safe?
Concerned sources within the Department of Building Inspection said they wished letters would be sent out to the property owners who’d had mandatory retrofits, urging them to call 811 and have PG&E pinpoint the location of their gas lines: “That, at least, would help to indemnify the city somewhat for this fuck-up.”
In the meantime, the future remains unknown — and, for now, unknowable.
But not forever. Perry says there are two ways to find out how safe those gas lines are.
One, he says, “is to go out and excavate.” And the other? He laughs. “Wait for an earthquake.”