Illustration by Molly Oleson

A trio of San Francisco supervisors will today call for a hearing, following a pair of Mission Local special reports last week outlining potentially catastrophic problems stemming from the city’s thousands of mandatory seismic retrofit projects. 

Supervisor Myrna Melgar said the articles “gave me a really bad stomachache.” Along with Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Aaron Peskin, she said she will call for a hearing looking into these matters to be held in the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee. 

Melgar chairs this committee, and Peskin and Supervisor Dean Preston are also members. 

Before serving as an elected supervisor, Melgar was a planning commissioner, a member of the Department of Building Inspection’s Building Inspection Committee, and was involved in the implementation of the soft-story retrofit program during her years in the Mayor’s Office of Housing. 

Elements of the articles “sounded familiar to me. … You put it in writing, but not all of these allegations are new,” she said. “If what these articles shed light on is true, then we are in deep shit — and we have to take corrective action.” 

A gas line within a new concrete foundation

The first article outlined a condition, known to the city and its Department of Building Inspection since late 2016, in which gas lines were being encased in the new concrete foundations mandated by San Francisco’s soft-story retrofit ordinance. 

During a seismic event — the very event the mandatory retrofittings were undertaken in anticipation of — those gas lines would now be held tightly in concrete, creating a new, induced breaking and fire hazard. 

Some 4,900 structures were required by the city to undergo seismic upgrades, and nearly 4,000 of those jobs have been completed. But, as far back as 2017, city officials acknowledged a potentially catastrophic fire situation. 

During a structural subcommittee meeting in August, 2017, engineer Charles Perry confirmed that the problem of existing gas lines passing through new foundations was occurring on “pretty much every project” on his retrofits. What’s more, Perry confirmed, rather than deal with potential months-long 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.’” 

Department of Building Inspection chief plumbing inspector Steve Panelli said that “If one little leak happened and something happened here — it becomes catastrophic now. … It snowballs.”

This is preventable. Gas lines should not enter structures through foundations, but rise up, vertically, out of the pavement and then enter above the foundation. 

The notion of untold numbers of gas lines entering untold numbers of foundations “could become a San Bruno,” in the words of Panelli’s DBI colleague, engineer David Leung, referencing the 2010 explosion of a PG&E gas line in that city. That tragedy killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood.  

A gas line, in yellow tape, with a new foundation being built around it.

The second article revealed that the regional structural engineering association has spent years attempting to buttonhole the Department of Building Inspection regarding longstanding concerns about shoddy engineering, poor construction, and sloppy and inconsistent city inspections of the mandatory retrofits — and has, by and large, been blown off. 

Melgar called for an “open and transparent process.” She aims to dig into the origins of the problem and figure out its scope. 

“We are taking this seriously,” said Ronen. “We are going to figure this out.” 

Added Peskin, “Public safety is the most important issue and we need to figure out what needs to be done to ensure we don’t have life-safety issues. That is going to require an independent analysis and may require jackhammers and money.” 

Then-chief building inspector Patrick O’Riordan in 2017 issued an order to building inspectors in the field to inform the Plumbing Inspection Division of any gas lines they encountered encased in new concrete foundations — but, also, “Do not stop the work once you have followed the above protocols.” 

In response to questions from Mission Local in April, 2021, O’Riordan, now the Department of Building Inspection’s interim director, defended this dictum in the name of safety: “In these situations, stopping the work for several months could create an even greater safety hazard,” he wrote via a spokesman. 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.”

Multiple building inspectors contacted by Mission Local said this response was nonsensical: In such a situation, they said, 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. 

Inspectors told Mission Local that specific instructions to “not stop the work” undercut their leverage and left them impotent to alter dangerous situations. 

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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6 Comments

  1. I’m sure the experts on the Building Inspection Commission will be able to sort this out.

  2. I have this general thing to say, and it is about Mission Local. I continue to be extremely impressed by your reporting and opinions regarding the safety and well-being of San Franciscans and the people who visit San Francisco. Please keep it up, and I will gladly keep supporting you. Bravo!

  3. I’m still unclear if penetrating a foundation is illegal in San Francisco, or just frowned upon. I see here an engineer states the method as “illegal,” but have yet to see that substantiated in either article (though I agree it makes perfect sense).

    State law allows for foundation penetration. SF municipal law may be more stringent – I don’t know. I could see where the prevalence of over-the-top lines were installed simply for ease of retrofit when footings weren’t replaced. Maybe it’s law, maybe it’s Maybelline.

    Can we get a citation or a link that provides clarity?

  4. This article is inflammatory. If the contractors are following the rules:
    1210.1 Piping Underground
    Underground gas piping shall be installed with sufficient clearance from any other underground structure to avoid contact therewith, to allow maintenance, and to protect against damage from proximity to other structures. In addition, underground plastic piping shall be installed with sufficient clearance or shall be insulated from sources of heat to prevent the heat from impairing the serviceability of the pipe. [NFPA 54:7.1.1]

    There should be no added risk. Also the size of these connections is nothing like the trunk line in San Bruno.

    1. The more relevant State Code:

      1210.1.5 Piping Through Foundation Wall

      Underground piping installed through the outer foundation or basement wall of a building shall be encased in a protective sleeve or protected by an approved device or method. The space between the gas piping and the sleeve and between the sleeve and the wall shall be sealed to prevent entry of gas and water. [NFPA 54:7.1.5]

  5. Great job reporting on this life safety issue effecting all residents of and visitors to San Francisco. Exploding buildings do not obey property lines. Every single San Franciscan is now at risk of living next door to, walking by or living in one of these potential bombs.

    I am dumbfounded by the incompetence of the leadership of SFBID. Acknowledge the problem, then rinse and repeat. Why not encase landmines in all the sidewalks throughout the city? Oh wait…isn’t that what SFBID just did?

    How difficult would it have been to bring the gas line up through the sidewalk ON THE OUTSIDE OF THE BUILDING WITH A SHUT OFF VALVE before entering the interior of the building?

    The citizens of San Francisco should sue the city to force the city for undo the damage and pay the building owners for the retro fit. Oh wait who funds the city coffers? Tax Payers that’s who. What a circus! It’s time to privatize SFBID so when they are caught screwing up they have to pay for the fix and not the tax payers.

    Am I the only person who sees a problem with “public works” or SFBID funded using “public” dollars? No accountability by city workers living on public assistance.

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