Pipeline blast has locals on edge

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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It’s been nearly four years since 200,000 cubic feet of natural gas shot out of the ground like a geyser in a Rocklinneighborhood off Americana Way in forcing evacuations of dozens of homes. “We were concerned about an ignition source,” Rocklin Fire Chief Bill Mikesell recalls. It didn’t happen and the Pacific Gas and Electric substation was shutdown and repaired. Three weeks ago in San Bruno it was a different story. A 30-inch gas transmission pipeline exploded, in what people described as an earthquake, shaking neighborhoods, killing eight people and leveling 37 houses. Now communities statewide are taking a closer look at similar pipelines. “I’m not an alarmist,” Mikesell said.”Is it possible that it could occur here? Yes. Is it probable? Not likely.” Even so, Mikesell said Rocklin Fire is ready. But the San Bruno accident has made Rocklin residents nervous. Especially the ones who live virtually on top of the Rocklin ravine pipeline that comes from Roseville at Highway 65 and Blue Oaks Boulevard, across town under neighborhoods, up the railroad tracks and down Rocklin Road in front of Sierra College on its way to Auburn and Reno. The Rocklin pipeline skirts past the edge of the parking lot in front of the Kindercare preschool on Fairway Drive. Some parents there were surprised, but did not know enough about the pipeline to speak publicly. A spokesperson for Kindercare, Carey Kearns, said PG&E inspected the line near the Fairway Drive center and have not informed them of any issues. “The safety and security of our children is our highest priority,” Kearns said. “We’ve encouraged parents if they have concerns to let us know. We would keep them updated on any new information.” Rock Creek Elementary is nearly 530 feet from the pipeline. Rocklin homeowner Wally Petersen who lives on Marlee Way can see the yellow warning sign from his front door, marking the pipeline location. “I always knew there was a gas line going through here but I had no idea it was that kind of pipeline,” Petersen said. “Anytime with something like that you never think it could happen to you.” Several experts have gone public, alarmed, that one of the causes of the accident could happen anywhere. Reportedly one of the main causes of the San Bruno accident was corrosion on the 1956 era pipeline spurred by micro organisms one thousandth of a meter long living in stagnant water in the line. Dr. John Coates a micro biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley said corrosion caused by microbes could damage the Rocklin line. “I think it is quite probable, certainly possible,” Coates said. “The micro organisms themselves don’t cause the explosion. If the pipe is corroded by the microbial activity, the gas can escape and then some ignition of that gas causes the explosion that you see.” Coates admits the microbes would need more than a year to cause the needed damage to the inside or outside of the pipe. PG&E spokesperson Matt Nauman said the Rocklin Ravine pipeline, as it is referred, is inspected every year and if customers have concerns they should call PG&E. To ease fears, the company released the recent maintenance log for the line they call 173. A leak survey, or visual inspection, was conducted May 5 and no leaks were found, according to Nauman. PG&E conducts leak surveys every 12 to 15 months. To prevent a San Bruno-type disaster, PG&E conducts cathodic protection tests every two months using an electronic charge to test the infrastructure of the pipe. “The cathodic test is there to help prevent any type of internal corrosion in the pipeline,” Nauman said. “The charge is not enough to ignite any potential leak.” Crews also conduct odorization or odor intensity tests weekly with instruments to make sure the air around the pipeline is normal. Then once every seven years, a pipeline integrity assessment is conducted. The last such federal mandated test on the Rocklin line was done in 2006. Nauman could not report when the Rocklin pipeline was installed. Rocklin resident Rhonda Witz suspects the pipeline is as old as the 1991 neighborhood and wants PG&E to be more forthcoming with information. “I can imagine this is a hot button for them,” Witz said. Construction crews rather than pipeline crews concern her. New condos being constructed across the street from the pipeline. “It makes me nervous with these guys working over here with a pole digger,” Witz said. “You could feel it, ‘boom.” Her neighbor, Petersen, also feels the ground moving equipment and thinks twice about its affect on the pipeline. “I have an impression that PG&E is a good, responsible company but San Bruno happens and you stop and think,” Petersen said. “I would like to know if the Rocklin pipeline was inspected. I’m an optimistic person. If they don’t do the right thing, we’ll pay the consequences.” In fact, the section of the pipeline that connects into Roseville at Washington and Blue Oaks boulevards was recently added to PG&E’s watch list of 100 priority sights. PG&E engineers use the list to plan work or upgrades. In this location, the only concern was possible third parties that could dig into the line. No upgrade was identified, according to the report. Nauman said PG&E crews walk the line looking for any changes in conditions frequently. The last pipeline patrol was done Sept. 3. PG&E spokesperson Jeff Smith said work is done immediately on anything that poses an immediate safety concern. “It’s critical for people to understand that we rigorously monitor all of our pipelines and maintain them according to proven industry practices,” he said. Distribution lines that run off of the pipeline and connect to homes and businesses are inspected once every five years, Smith said. He couldn’t say how much gas runs through the pipeline at any given time and suggest customers go to their website for more information and pipeline maps. Dr. Coates said if the San Bruno pipeline went through all these test it should be a wakeup call for PG&E. “I would say it is the responsibility of the utility to ensure that those pipelines are maintained more effectively than they currently are,” Coates said.