Illustration by Molly Oleson

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.  

A gas line within a new concrete foundation

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.” 

O’Riordan — now 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.  

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

“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.”  

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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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16 Comments

  1. Looking forward to a PUC where Herrera would not go out and actually work on the Hetch Hetchy dam as General Manager, let’s take this opportunity to look back and remember that was not Herrera’s job to actually sleeve the gas lines as City Attorney.

  2. Does the State code describe a “sleeve”? I didn’t see that part if it does, and the term “sleeve” seems highly ambiguous. Palo Alto code uses the term “conduit,” which is much clearer.

    Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing (CSST, which comes coated with polyethylene) would be the most resistant to corrosion, but may be more susceptible to tearing than steel is to cracking in the event of an earthquake. Steel pipe in conduit would seemingly still be susceptible to moisture and rust/corrosion, and is probably why Palo Alto code stipulates CSST in conduit.

    Peel and stick bituthene is probably the best material to wrap steel in for rust prevention, but like the article states, a wrap does nothing if the concrete cracks at pipe placement during an earthquake.

    Palo Alto code sure seems like the way to go:

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/17801&ved=2ahUKEwibsKqB2P3wAhVJj54KHW1tAjMQFjACegQIExAC&usg=AOvVaw0OL3tVJmQIaPKWnhIyT_U4

    Not trying to getch’ya Joe, I just enjoy engineering conundrums. Good work getting a hearing on the matter.

    1. Rosh — 

      https://up.codes/viewer/california/ca-plumbing-code-2019/chapter/12/fuel-gas-piping#1210.1.5

      “Underground piping, where 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]”

      You are correct that the term “sleeve” is not further defined in this particular code.

      JE

      1. Sorry for the repition Joe. A notation came up that said my comment wouldn’t post because it was a repeat comment, but I think I was clicking “post” twice. I didn’t realize they went through. Guess I shouldn’t have thrown my computer out the window after all. I’ll go get it now.

      2. There may not be one retrofit job in the city that has a proper sleeve. Here’s why:

        Section 1208.0 of San Francisco’s plumbing code dictates that all exterior gas lines be galvanized steel or iron.

        This code means that corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST) cannot be used outside the building (it’s not possible to galvanize stainless steel, hence the use of a polyethylene coating) . Without being able to use CSST, which is flexible, creates a problem where a bend is necessary. A 90° rigid gas line sweep (‘sweep’ meaning a gradual bend, although a right angle wouldn’t work either) cannot be inserted into a 90° conduit sweep, considering conduit is also rigid. CSST, on the other hand, can be snaked into conduit, as well as pulled out (it’s replaceable).

        I’m wondering if Duffy or another inspector could produce a single pic of a properly sleeved gas line in SF (note, we haven’t seen one). Additionally, Gasparac/DBI have their work cut out for them in writing a comprehensive information sheet explaining what constitutes a proper sleeving method under current SF code. I suppose one could switch from galvanized pipe to CCST after entering the foundation wall, but I’m not sure if that would meet SF code, and I’m skeptical that method is being implemented.

        https://codelibrary.amlegal.com/codes/san_francisco/latest/sf_building/0-0-0-85773

  3. The term “sleeve” seems highly ambiguous. Palo Alto code uses the term “conduit,” which is much clearer.

    Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing (CSST, which comes coated with polyethylene) would be the most resistant to corrosion, but may be more susceptible to tearing than steel is to cracking in the event of an earthquake. Steel pipe in conduit would seemingly still be susceptible to moisture and rust/corrosion, and is probably why Palo Alto code stipulates CSST in conduit.

    Peel and stick bituthene is probably the best material to wrap steel in for rust prevention, but like the article states, a wrap does nothing if the concrete cracks at pipe placement during an earthquake.

    Palo Alto code sure seems like the way to go.

  4. Palo Alto code, which requires corrugated stainless steel tubing in conduit sure seems like the way to go

  5. Just what makes newly appointed “Assistant Director” Christine Gasparac qualified to speak for the Building Dept., and why should the Supervisors give her testimony any credence? As far as we know, she has no training, whatsoever, in the Building Codes, and no previous experience working for SFDBI or any other Building Department. As another commenter, “Cyril Y”, wrote about her on March 15, in response to Joe’s column of the same date:

    “The spokesperson used her recent uncontested hiring as an example – stating she had no connections leading to her hire at DBI. What she failed to mention to the audience, are minor details of her previous appointments as: Spokesperson for Jerry Brown and Chief of Staff for Bill Lockyer’s wife Nadia, the disgraced meth queen and former Alameda County Supervisor (an appointment from which the DBI spokesperson was fired).”

    Her appointment follows a pattern at DBI of hiring spokespersons to do the speaking in place of the actual DBI managers. However, unlike her predecessor in the spokesperson job, she has been made an “Assistant Director” at an even higher pay scale. That predecessor, who performed the same function for recently deposed Director Tom Hui and prior to that Director Vivian Day, likewise had no previous experience with Building Codes or the Building Department.

    Are the Directors and their Deputies so incompetent that they can’t speak for themselves? How are they justified in hiring these smooth-talking, hired guns at pay rates that exceed those of most other DBI employees and which add significantly to the City’s costs of employing the Directors? Why can’t “the city that knows how” (sic) employ competent Directors from the beginning, instead of the chosen friends of the power brokers who pull the strings at DBI (namely, Walter Wong and the RBA)? And why is it that most other city building departments don’t find it necessary to hire a spokesperson for their Directors?

    In addition, it appears that Ms. Gasparac is not the only spokesperson currently working for DBI. According to the current DBI Organizational Chart (https://sfdbi.org/sites/default/files/DBI%20Org%20Chart.pdf)
    she also supervises a staff that includes:
    Jeff Buckley – Policy and Public Affairs – and his staff of two others
    and Patrick Hannan – Communications
    Has DBI fallen into such shambles and disrepute that it now requires an entire dedicated staff of employees to speak for it?

    1. It’s long past the time for the professional licenses to be yanked from the DBI employees caught lying and falsifying certifications.

  6. I’m beginning to wonder what Building Inspection Commission members like Jon Jacobo actually do regarding oversight?

    1. Willy N.

      Looks like you’re beginning to see the light. Congratulations. What is needed by the BIC is a professional manager or managers to oversee the DBI, not a bunch of amateurs who don’t even get paid for their work. As Rudy Nothenberg, the S.F. City Administrator in 1994, warned at the time, passage of the Charter Amendment that established DBI would place the Building Dept. in the hands of special interests, and this prediction has proven to be correct. (S.F. Chron., 7/17/00) The voters, however, were duped into approving this self-serving Amendment by two of the City’s greatest opportunists, Joe O’Donaghue, former head of the Residential Builders Association (RBA), and Randy Shaw, longtime Tenderloin housing advocate.

      As it worked out, the only people who would want these non-paying jobs are ones who see it as a way to benefit themselves or their constituents. And the Charter Amendment limits that even further: “The four mayoral appointments shall be comprised of a structural engineer, a licensed architect, a residential builder, and a representative of a community- based non-profit housing development corporation. The three Supervisorial appointments shall be comprised of a residential tenant, a residential landlord, and a member of the general public. The members of the commission shall serve without compensation.” Typically, almost none of these representatives are familiar with the Building Codes, and none has any experience overseeing a Building Dept. or any other large organization. If they did, they wouldn’t be spending their valuable time with the BIC.

      What they do bring to the table is a personal and/or constituent-based wish list, whether that means personal access to DBI staff and services (e.g. Rodrigo Santos, Mel Murphy), DBI programs that benefit their constituents, the hiring of people like themselves at DBI, their own political agenda, or public exposure for themselves (current Supervisors Myrna Melgar and Gordon Mar are former BIC Commissioners.)

      Unfortunately, the only way to clean up this mess now is to go back to the voters with a new, significantly changed Charter Amendment. (Under the current system, even a proven outsider in the Director’s position will have a steep, uphill battle fighting the entrenched special interests.) And maybe some day in the hopefully not-too-distant future we can look forward to a professional, competent, and well-respected DBI.

  7. Astounding journalistic investigation into astounding INcompetence at DBI and –regrettably — astounding cover-up courtesy of the City Attorney’s office! Let’s hope this series, and likely follow-ups, generates some house-cleaning at both DBI and City Attorney’s offices. Kudos.

  8. Isn’t this also a problem in older buildings in general? For instance, in my 1930’s Mission building, the main gas line comes up vertically through the garage floor, fully encased in concrete, and god only knows what’s going on beneath the slab. When was this part of the building code written, and would any building built before then be likely to follow it?

  9. Talking head Gasparac was hired for one purpose – to attempt (poorly) to deflect all incoming testimony of malfeasance and corruption at DBI, which the mayor does not want exposed.
    Yes, the mayor knew the proverbial shite was about to hit the fan – and duly approved an interim director she knew would work hard to ensure all cover-up of wrongdoing by DBI management, as he’s done for the last 10 years as the Chief Building Inspector.

    Duffy’s deceitful suggestion that contractors did *anything* about the the gas lines is complete horse shite. Although DBI could not even define what “proper sleeving” might be, or produce a single shred of evidence that any form of “approved sleeving” was ever used, Duffy stated that “sleeves” were installed “by contractors he talked to”, yet he claimed there is no way to visually confirm their presence without destruction of concrete. This is simply not true, and as the acting Chief of Building Inspection (installed by O’Riordan), one would assume he knows this:

    From Wikipedia –
    “Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is a geophysical method that uses radar pulses to image the subsurface. It is a non-intrusive method of surveying the sub-surface to investigate underground utilities such as concrete, asphalt, metals, pipes, cables or masonry.[1] This nondestructive method uses electromagnetic radiation in the microwave band (UHF/VHF frequencies) of the radio spectrum, and detects the reflected signals from subsurface structures. GPR can have applications in a variety of media, including rock, soil, ice, fresh water, pavements and structures. In the right conditions, practitioners can use GPR to detect subsurface objects, changes in material properties, and voids and cracks.”

    When this dangerous practice of encasing gas lines in concrete was brought to DBI management in 2016, and solutions presented to correct the problem, O’Riordan and Duffy were at the helm. Rather than take the potentially explosive problem seriously, they each did everything in their power to squash the issue, which is why we are here now.

    Peskin suggested during the hearing that through the implementation of the Soft Story program, which was instituted without any guidance of how to deal with existing utility locations, the government “forgot” to address this huge safety concern.
    That is not the case.
    The issue of aging gas lines affected by soft story retrofit work, was brought up to DBI management over, and over, and over.
    DBI management, with O’Riordan as the Chief Building Inspector, chose not to focus on a remedy for the city’s mistake, but rather to cover it up – including demoting and transferring out of the inspection division, those inspectors that pressed the deadly issue.

    In the SF Chronicle today, is yet another article exposing more corruption at DBI.
    Senior building inspector Bernie Curran, who has been under O’Riordan’s direct supervision for 10 years, has been placed on leave after felonious activity was presented by the City Attorney. This individual, under O’Riordan’s watch, has been allowed to abuse the system for years. O’Riordan’s current claim is that he is now rooting out corruption in the department.
    Why was he not concerned with (and involved in) corruption for the last 10+ years?
    If his intent is truly to “remove all bad actors” from employment at DBI, his next order of business should be to step down.

  10. Aaron,

    Remember when you tried to teach me to swim?

    And failed miserably?

    I recall you commenting:

    “You really can’t swim.

    I could have drowned you.”

    Well irregardless of your feelings about me, I am an expert Behavious Teacher and I can coach you into changing your behavior in that area.

    Did it myself and dropped 50 lbs in 6 months since I stopped Cold Turkey.

    And, its free and best part is you get to hang out with me.

    I have 2 degrees in this shit and tons of accolades.

    Or, perhaps in this area?

    Like me with swimming, you’re just unteachable.

    But, I promise not to drown you.

    lol

    Go Giants!

    h.

  11. Hi Joe,

    Appreciate your reporting on the DBI. One thing I can’t figure out– and I have asked every plan checker I have seen since OTC reopening– who was the architect/designer of the new DBI building? Everyone seems to not know, even though it should be their business. I would think they’d know who plan checked it too, but everyone is apparently foggy on it. What gives? Are they not a local firm? Googling has not been helpful either. No one is claiming it..

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