Under withering questioning from the Board of Supervisors at an afternoon hearing, Department of Building Inspection officials admitted frequent approval of a safety practices regarding gas lines running through concrete foundations that experts felt to be dubiously sufficient.
Today’s hearing follows a pair of recent special reports published by Mission Local.
On April 21, we published a report revealing that, during the city’s thousands of mandatory seismic retrofits, unknown numbers of gas pipes were improperly encased in new concrete foundations, creating the potential for “catastrophic” failures, in the words of the city’s own chief plumbing inspector in 2017.
On April 22, we published a report about how the region’s structural engineering association spent years warning the Department of Building Inspection of potentially widespread poor engineering and construction practices, and questionable Department of Building Inspection oversight, on the 4,000-odd completed mandatory retrofit projects. The engineers, by and large, were blown off.
Plumbing codes state that a gas line running through a foundation “shall be encased in a protected sleeve or protected by an approved device or method.” Sleeving essentially means running the pipe through a larger pipe to shield it.
Department of Building Inspection assistant director Christine Gasparac this afternoon jolted members of the Board by stating that merely wrapping a pipe before pouring concrete atop it, and not sleeving it, constituted an “approved method.”
Acting chief building inspector Joe Duffy later described the wrapping of gas lines with “foam wrap” which is “taped off.” Duffy said “a lot more” of the contractors he’s spoken with wrapped pipes with tape-like materials rather than placing them in protective sleeves of the sort noted in the state codes.
And yet both a PG&E representative and independent code expert Douglas Hansen expressed doubt that mere wrapping would be sufficient. Wrapping a pipe is meant to protect against corrosion — but not against structural issues of the sort that could occur in an earthquake (or just as foundations settle over time).
What’s more, if wrapping a pipe really is an “approved method,” then the approval should be formalized within a Department of Building Inspection administrative bulletin — and this administrative bulletin should include guidance on what, exactly, it means to wrap a pipe.
Veteran building inspectors have told Mission Local they saw pipes that were wrapped with duct tape, electrical tape, building paper, or nothing at all before being encased in concrete. This is a far cry from properly sleeving the pipe (or, in fact, diverting it so it doesn’t travel through the foundation).
When Supervisor Myrna Melgar asked Gasparac if such an administrative bulletin existed, Gasparac responded that the department is “working on an information sheet dealing with the sleeving/wrapping issue,” and “it’s the department’s responsibility to issue a sheet clarifying this information to contractors and engineers.”
So, the answer is no.
Such an administrative bulletin does not seem to exist, even though this issue regarding gas lines being encased in new concrete foundations was broached as far back as 2016, and even though thousands and thousands of jobs were completed and signed off by the Department of Building Inspection between then and now during the city’s mandatory retrofitting program.
It was not a banner day for either PG&E or DBI. At one point, a PG&E representative noted a desire to coordinate with the Department of Building Inspection to formalize a reporting process, calling into question just what the process has been thus far, eight years into the mandatory retrofitting program.
Building Department officials, meanwhile, came under heavy fire from supervisors who grew exasperated with evasive answers about just what could be done to retroactively check on the gas lines in the 4,000-odd completed seismic retrofits. The Department of Building Inspection estimates that one-third of the projects included a new foundation of the sort that could, potentially, capture an existing gas line (which may or may not be sleeved or wrapped).
Determining how many did, however — and what methods, if any, were used to protect those lines — is an outstanding question. As is just how the quality of work on gas lines buried under concrete will now be checked.
In the end, Supervisor Hillary Ronen asked if the Department of Building Inspection would collaborate with PG&E to “narrow down the field of homes where there was, indeed, a gas pipeline covered in concrete and come up with a series of actions to be taken on all those homes.”
Patrick O’Riordan, the interim director of the entire department, committed to doing this.
Ronen told him his department’s answers had been insufficient. Supervisor Aaron Peskin told him more.
“While I don’t, nor should any of us, have any great trust in PG&E, the Department of Building Inspection has to own this. You can’t say there’s nothing to see here. There’s a lot to see here,” Peskin said. Of all the thousands of potentially affected structures, “when one burns and five people die, that’ll be on the city and DBI’s watch, both morally and financially.”
Peskin, further, said a then-Deputy City Attorney named Nick Colla brought this matter to his attention some five years ago. Colla, reached after the hearing, confirmed he facilitated a meeting between Peskin and a Department of Building Inspection whistleblower.
He declined to speak about anything that came next. But Peskin did, in an open meeting.
“I tried to elevate this within the City Attorney’s office,” Peskin said, claiming the matter was instead made to “go away.”
A call to the City Attorney’s office has not yet been returned.
“This is really not okay,” Peskin concluded. “I will say it one last time: There is something to see here.”