After the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion five years ago, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. launched a statewide upgrade to its gas safety program. Richmond will receive its PG&E pipeline safety makeover in the upcoming weeks.
PG&E said it was introducing its Community Pipeline Safety Initiative to improve access to transmission lines for first responders in the event of an emergency, partly by removing or replacing trees. The utility said Richmond has 43 trees on public property needing replacement, while 372 residential trees pose a potential threat to public welfare.
Richmond Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard compared the new initiative to parking restrictions on city streets.
“It is similar to why you can’t park your car in front of a fire hydrant,” Sheppard said. “While emergency responders may not need that access on a daily basis, in the event of an emergency they need quick access to that fire hydrant. It is much the same here; items like structures and trees can delay firefighters from quickly accessing the pipe in an emergency, when every second counts.”
The repercussions of the San Bruno blast still haunt the electric and gas company. The explosion killed eight people, left another 66 residents injured and demolished 38 homes. According to court documents, PG&E committed 2,425 safety violations in the decades leading up to the San Bruno blast, creating a huge blow to the company’s reputation. The California Public Utilities Commission recently launched a formal investigation into the company’s safety culture.
Richmond has had its own brushes with industrial disasters.
Three years ago, a fire at Chevron Corp.’s Richmond refinery sent 15,000 residents to hospitals with respiratory problems. Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin said both the San Bruno explosion and the Chevron refinery fire were “distressing” reminders of the community’s vulnerability.
“These big industries, like Chevron and PG&E, need to change their corporate culture and put safety before profits,” she said.
PG&E has invested $3 billion in programs to modernize its gas transmission system, while earning only $402 million this quarter, according to SEC filings. The company claims it is working to balance the need for safety with the needs of the community, promising to work closely with property owners as the trees are uprooted.
“Any re-landscaping required would all be done at PG&E’s expense. We will not move forward until [residents] are satisfied with what we are going to do. We want to ensure that every situation is better than we found it when the work is complete,” said PG&E spokesperson Jeff Smith.
It is unsure how long each project will take. PG&E said it will wait until public and residential property owners support its projects.
The majority of the 43 problem trees on public property are found near Atlas Road between Monarch Way and Giant Highway and some are located around Hilltop Mall on Robert Miller Drive and Blume Drive. The company is making appointments with private property owners to discuss landscaping.