Illustration by Molly Oleson

In April, Mission Local revealed that building inspectors, starting all the way back in 2016, had warned their higher-ups at the Department of Building Inspection that gas lines were being improperly encased in concrete during the city’s mandatory seismic retrofitting program. 

The Department of Building Inspection’s response to those warnings was not stellar. On the very day in January, 2017, that inspectors were given a presentation on the dangers of ruptured gas lines, referencing the 1937 New London, Texas explosion that killed nearly 300 students and teachers, then-chief building inspector Patrick O’Riordan sent out a dictum. It instructed his inspectors to “not stop the work” if they discovered gas lines in foundations.

Multiple sources have stated that inspectors who balked at pipes merely wrapped with duct tape, electrical tape, building paper, or nothing at all being encased in concrete found themselves transferred to other divisions. At an explosive meeting in August, 2017, an engineer told a DBI expert panel that gas lines going through foundations was a problem on “pretty much every project” he oversaw in the city. And, rather than deal with months-long delays from Pacific Gas & Electric, 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.’” 

But that didn’t happen — even after DBI chief plumbing inspector Steve Panelli told the DBI panel that this problem could become “catastrophic,” and his colleague, David Leung, evoked the lethal gas explosion in San Bruno. “That is something that fell off the table,” engineer Stephen Harris, who chaired that 2017 meeting, told us this year. “We let it drop without thinking about it.” 

But that extended period of somnambulism ceased this year, especially after the Board of Supervisors ripped DBI in a June hearing. The building department committed to partnering with PG&E to retroactively analyze what it had, for many years, allowed to happen. 

And, lo, that has come to pass. At the Dec. 15 meeting of the Building Inspection Commission, an update was presented on the progress of this audit. And it was a hell of an update: Of 4,942 properties subject to the city’s mandatory retrofit program, DBI had winnowed the list down to just 75 that might have a problematic situation with a gas pipe encased in concrete. 

This news was received ebulliently by the commissioners; it harked to King Henry V’s reaction after being told he had lost “but five-and-twenty” men at Agincourt (“‘Tis wonderful!” as Henry’s uncle Exeter put it). O’Riordan, now the interim department director, and a finalist for the full-time job, acknowledged that “75 is an amazing number.” 

Independent experts and sources within both DBI and PG&E also tell Mission Local that it’s amazing. But not necessarily in a good way: They questioned DBI’s methods, they questioned DBI’s methodology and they questioned the rigor of this audit. 

And, thereby, they questioned the results. 

Then-Chief Building Inspector Patrick O’Riordan’s Jan. 26, 2017 dictum.

Here’s how DBI went from a list of nearly 5,000 properties to but five and seventy

You start with 4,942 properties — all of them five units or more — in the mandatory retrofit program. You knock off 1,445 in which the inspection notes don’t contain any of these words: “reinforcing steel,” “OK to pour” or “grade beam.” Those notes, DBI determined, would have been on any project  that involved a concrete pour that could encase a gas line. 

This is a rather narrow set of criteria: DBI is rather monomaniacally focusing on gas lines caught in a “grade beam” — a single element of a foundation — during the recent mandatory seismic program. But a gas line could be encased in any element of a foundation, not just a grade beam. And this could’ve happened during any project, not just during the recent batch of seismic retrofits. Also, considering DBI’s poor record for inspections, including instances of overt corruption, one can’t help but wonder whether undocumented or uninspected work was done on any of those 1,445 projects. 

Anyhow, now you’re left with 3,497 properties. DBI then eliminated nearly 3,000 of those because PG&E had, at some point in time, replaced the gas lines via a method called “casing,” in which a plastic, malleable line is shoved through the rigid, aging, metal line. Both DBI and PG&E claim this is sufficient to shield gas lines in a seismic event. Even if the line is encased in concrete, they claim, the aging metal line is now serving as a “sleeve,” protecting the new plastic line. 

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

This is not a universally held opinion. And, you’ll note, that 90 percent of the properties have been eliminated, sight-unseen, before anyone had to even get up from his or her desk. 

Of the remaining 520 properties, DBI visited 246 that had not been cased and might have a gas line in concrete. And, in the end, but five and seventy sites out of the nearly 5,000 we started out with were determined to even potentially be problematic. The property owners at these 75 sites will, at some point, be notified prior to work being undertaken; PG&E aims to “case” the lines by the end of 2022.

As noted above, not everyone agrees that “casing” — a longstanding PG&E practice undertaken for reasons other than seismic safety — is the cure for all that ails us here. And, even experts who do feel it’s adequate were shocked that DBI would simply write off these 3,000-odd properties with nary a site visit. 

DBI needs to “go back and look at the previous umpteen-thousand of them,” says Douglas Hansen, a former senior inspector and plan checker for plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems in Santa Clara. He is also the senior author of the Code Check series of building code manuals.

At each of the nearly 3,000 “cased” San Francisco sites, Hansen continues, a physical inspection must be undertaken to ensure that a vent is present. In the event of a pipe rupture, gas would then vent, harmlessly, into the outside air. Without it, gas could build up — catastrophically — beneath or within a structure. 

“You have to lay eyes on those vents. You have to lay eyes on the risers coming out of the concrete and into the meter. You have to, in some cases, x-ray the slab to locate the pipes,” he says.  

“You have to start by looking. You have to put on your pants.”

A gas line within a new concrete foundation

Hansen also has his doubts about the suitability of “casing” to serve as a protective sleeve through a foundation. Others don’t: Mission Local talked to two gas piping experts, both of whom have long histories with PG&E. They saw casing as “a tried and true methodology.” 

But they were also taken aback that the Department of Building Inspection would forego inspections on 3,000-odd properties and rely, solely, on PG&E’s word that everything is fine: “We would expect DBI to inspect each of these to ensure there is nothing unusual or problematic in how PG&E facilities are being impacted by the new foundation,” said the first source. 

It needs to be determined not only if a gas line is encased in concrete, but how: “Is it a straight shot? Or does it cross the foundation at a more acute angle? Instead of 90 degrees is it more like 45, or 60? That means more pipe is covered.” All of these possibilities factor into whatever steps need to be taken next — but DBI hasn’t done the work necessary to begin making those decisions. 

“Why is DBI not inspecting? Why is DBI allowing gas services to run straight through the foundation and be encased in the foundation and not inspected?”

The second source had an idea why. 

Casing, the longtime PG&E gas construction worker noted, is a “tried and true practice for PG&E and other utility providers across the country.” And, therefore, it would be potentially risky for PG&E to invite San Francisco’s building department — or any building department — to look over its shoulder and scrutinize its longstanding and widespread practices and methods.  

Fortunately for PG&E, San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection has evinced no desire to do so; it seems to be thrilled to expediently write off a huge chunk of potentially problematic properties — no pants necessary. 

‘Tis not exactly wonderful. 

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Follow Us

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 editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for digging into this. The coverage by the Chron didn’t scrutinize the methodology by DBI whatsoever.

  2. Even if it’s “only” 75, that’s still a staggering number of screw-ups that could potentially level a house and severely damage a neighborhood. And if something as basic as this was “missed” in an inspection, what other unseen dangers are lurking in a city known for having connected contractors not afraid to take shortcuts?

    Good reporting. It’s a damn shame that other media outlets in the City allow such blatant corruption to go unreported. You do a service for us all Joe.

  3. Seems like DBI is going with the “cross your fingers and hope for the best” course of inaction. hopefully they luck out and are not just going to end up pointing fingers when a gas explosion kills someone. wonder how much it would cost to have all 5000+ gas lines inspected and if it would even come close to the millions the city may have to pay if they’re found responsible for an explosion.

  4. Hard to put a price on willful sonambulism until a life is lost as a result; then “even” one life lost is too much.

  5. At what point might the Board of Supes., the formal & official
    “policy body” for SF, take an action to formally question the validity of DBI staff reports and actually formally criticize this agency?

  6. Lil’ 6.2 reminder quake off the coast last night, right.
    Joe, one thought crossed my mind – so if indeed “everyone is doing something illegal and unsafe”, wouldn’t that give building insurance an out when the time comes paying earthquake damages?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *