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.”
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.
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.