If you've worried about the safety of PG&E's natural gas pipelines in the aftermath of the San Bruno tragedy, we have good news and bad.
The good news is the utility is making ready for inspections and repairs with a rights-of-way management plan called the Pipeline Pathway. The bad news is it will mean removing trees, eliminating vegetation and relocating structures that endanger or impede access to buried pipes -- on public or private property.
Concord City Council members learned more about the project Tuesday night, and you could tell from the scowls they weren't altogether pleased. An earlier intimation by PG&E that it was empowered by the Public Utilities Commission to do whatever it wanted without city approval didn't sit well.
The utility plans to fell more than 600 trees in Concord, including 114 on city land. (Each will be replaced with a relocated sapling.) It plans to prune another 140 or so trees. Vegetation will be uprooted, and structures will be moved. Listen carefully, and you can hear the heavy equipment revving up.
It's of no small note that Concord has for 32 years been recognized as a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation in recognition of its urban forestry management. The municipal code protects trees of certain sizes and characteristics, so the attack of the chain saws was never going to be well received.
An exchange between Councilman Dan Helix and PG&E spokesman Wes Gullett spoke volumes.
Helix: "I want you on the record: Will PG&E follow the city permit requirements when it seeks to remove any protected trees?"
Gullett: "We're going to work with your staff."
Helix: "You're going to follow our permit process?"
Gullett: "We're going to adhere to it as closely as we can."
Helix: "That's not answering the question."
Gullett is a hired representative -- a partner at First Strategic communications -- so he was disinclined to make commitments on PG&E's behalf. But that didn't spare him a follow-up sparring session with Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister.
"I support the need for safety," she said, "but I think the way it's being brought about in terms of this project is it's PG&E's way or the highway. It's 'We're coming in, and we may or may not need permits.' You're basically saying you're exempt due to some PUC ruling, or your interpretation of it. I'm not quite sold that's the right answer."
Council meetings often are casual and cordial. Contentious was a better description this time. Councilman Edi Birsan wanted to know the last time the utility had undertaken a similar project. Never, said Gullett, as far as he knew.
"So," said Birsan, "for the last 300 years we've had trees growing here ... and we didn't hear anything from you guys. Now we have a situation where you're basically declaring tree eminent domain."
Gullett conceded afterward that it had been a rough night. Although this presentation had been made elsewhere -- PG&E has 6,500 miles of pipe -- Concord marked the first session in the East Bay, and he left knowing the council was not yet satisfied.
What other cities will be affected? Pleasant Hill? Martinez? Walnut Creek?
"We're going to go through all of those communities and more," he said. "This will be systemwide. We're trying to be as transparent as possible."
From what I witnessed Tuesday night, transparency's not the problem.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.