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PG&E gives green light to dig where SSJID crew cuts gas line
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The street safety paint on the street in the 1000 block of South Union at the time the gas line was cut showed the area of the underground utility check required before digging `a trench. “No” in yellow at the curb line indicates there is no gas line underground and the “PG&E” in red signifies no electric service underground that would endanger excavations. - photo by GLENN KAHL
Cutting through an active two-inch gas line Thursday morning put a SSJID crew in danger of an explosion shortly before 9 a.m. in the 1000 block of South Union Road.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District was using a backhoe to trench an irrigation line in an area 50 feet by 400 feet near the site for the new Islamic Center when the accident occurred behind homes located on Mission Ridge Drive.

SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields laid blame on a signoff painted near the curbing by PG&E workers indicating there was no gas or eclectic service existing underground in the area of the dig.  The yellow “No” painted in the gutter indicated there were no gas lines underground and the “PG&E” painted in red promised no electric service existed there either.

Firemen arrived on the scene amidst the smell of natural gas with other engines staging blocks away in the case of an explosion.  Soon after the PG&E crews arrived in the area the “No PG&E” marking were covered over with black spray paint.

None of the homes on Mission Ridge Drive were evacuated due to the escaping gas from the severed line.

Nicole Liebelt of the utility company’s public relations department was quick to explain the markings had been painted over to improve the aesthetics on the roadway – even though the black paint was placed on grayish concrete and not on similar colored black asphalt.

Shields said the incident was “unbelievable” showing the company has a problem keeping its maps straight.  He said the accident could have been catastrophic to SSJID’s eight member crew.

PG&E says SSJID didn’t have valid ticket
A PG&E spokesman said that SSJID did not have a valid ticket to begin digging Thursday morning.  There is normally a 48-hour delay required once approval has been approved for a dig such as the one taken out Thursday morning.

Authority for a dig comes from the Utility Systems Alert (USA) where its logo is painted in white spray paint on the ground or roadway to be excavated to show there are no underground service lines that might be damaged in the operation.

A permit or “ticket” is good for only 28 days and then it must be renewed with a two-day wait required after its approval to give other utilities time to respond to a planned digging site and warn of any danger.

Shields quarreled with having to wait those two days saying the Thursday authorization to dig was the third for that same area that had its inception back on Nov. 30.  He noted the excavation delay was caused by the city using the site for a drain area causing them to postpone the pipeline operation until mid-February.

He explained that the first permit ticket they pulled required the PG&E markings to show the presence of underground electric and gas lines.  That was the only time the markings were required on the ground by the USA, he added.

The second permit issued on Jan. 7 and the third on Feb. 18 had no markings placed on the ground showing a danger existed – the original “No PG&E” warnings remained until Thursday morning, however.

Shields said if there had been a spark in the area there would have been a mess in the neighborhood not to mention the lives of his men on the site. He added that a pattern is beginning to develop with PG&E failing to properly mark the positions of their underground service.

Manteca event similar to incident in Escalon
It was just last week in Escalon where contractor Rolfe Construction cut into a gas line on Steinega Road when the firm did not find the warning markings before digging, it was confirmed Thursday afternoon.

When a PG&E spokesman was questioned about that incident, she said she was not aware of the incident but that she would research the case.  She also noted that the Union Road event would be continued to be investigated by her firm.

A year ago Christmas Eve an explosion killed one Rancho Cordova man and injured five others. On Dec. 24, Wilbert Paana, his daughter Kimberly Dickson and granddaughter Sunny Dickson were the victims of a tragic mistake when their home located on Paiute Way exploded from a gas leak in their front yard.  It was at 1:35 in the afternoon – some four hours after the gas company was called to the neighborhood.

The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) had been investigating that tragedy for nearly a year to determine its cause.  The source of the natural gas explosion was blamed on a small piece of packing pipe that should never have been used, the report stated.

According to a PG&E submission letter a neighbor called the utility company the morning of Christmas Eve to report smelling a strong gas odor.  A gas company representative arrived at the home an hour later and tested for a gas leak at two separate houses.

Another neighbor said he believed the gas smell was coming from an area of dead grass in one of the yards. The utility worker found trace readings but found nothing near the house, according to the NTSB report.

When the Paana family arrived home they talked with the crew foreman.  They went into their home and he continued his investigation when the explosion occurred.

Following the tragedy the gas company began excavating the main gas line finding a failed pipeline coupling – a two inch section of the pipe.

Since the explosion, PG&E has reportedly taken several preventative measures to insure the safety of its customers.