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September 14, 2010 > Editorial: Beneath our feet

Editorial: Beneath our feet

Most of us do little in our lifetime that intrudes on anything below the outer surface of planet Earth. Although resources from beneath our feet fuel much of our activities and enrich our lives, they are often taken for granted. Occasional annoyances from those scratching the surface to lay pipes and conduit underground may intrude on our thoughts, but soon we are once again engrossed in day-to-day activities primarily on the surface and in plain sight.

Not everyone takes the subsurface so blithely; rich mineral deposits carried by highways of pipes inhabit almost every part of the Bay Area, United States and much of the world. There are companies, large and small, that understand the relationship between surface dwellers and the bulk of the planet hidden below. Surface and air transportation represents only a fraction of the movement within and between communities. Along with the health, economic and ecologic dangers of subsurface industry, come regulators charged with safeguarding the general public and workers within the industrial endeavors reaping rewards for their labor. Since much is veiled from public view, monitoring this activity is a difficult and often thankless task... until something goes wrong.

We have just experienced several wakeup calls that should not be ignored. Mining disasters with catastrophic consequences such as the Chilean situation, for instance, briefly catch our attention but quickly make way for the next major newsbreak. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was disastrous, yet somewhat removed from the immediate landscape. As if to emphasize the lesson, a portion of San Bruno was decimated by a gas explosion under densely populated suburban housing. Somehow, the infrastructure beneath our feet has a way of demanding attention in one way or another!

Even the most naive among us cannot deny the impact of terra firma becoming less than solid, especially when seemingly controlled by our own hands. Little known regulatory agencies such as the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) under the United States Department of Transportation have moved into the limelight. State regulators are also on the scene as well as protective and support services. Will recognition of these agencies and the subsurface transportation highways of pipes soon fade from our memories?

A recent news report notes that a although a massive project to upgrade natural gas pipes is in progress, "high risk" pipelines exist and are slated for close inspection and replacement. Among those miles of pipe included in this category are sections buried under the East Bay. This does not mean these pipes are in imminent danger of failure, but rather they exist in heavily populated areas and are due for service. Every so often, a small demonstration of our vulnerability briefly annoys us; an underground transformer failure or disruption of telephone or cable service. This is simply the tip of the iceberg and anyone involved with construction, telephone or utility services will second the sentiment.

On October, 17 1989, I lived in Aptos close to the epicenter of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. The aftermath in nearby Santa Cruz created the need to excavate Pacific Avenue, the main street of downtown. Below the pavement, a fascinating substructure was laid bare exposing a myriad of pipes that carried water and utilities back and forth. It was an astonishing sight and one of the most fascinating features was exposure of redwood pipes that must have been buried for a century. I was left to wonder how many pipes were still in service and how many had simply been left to rot or corrode beneath the street. This hidden infrastructure did not, of course, end at street boundaries, rather continued throughout the city and beyond. Older cities are probably riddled with pipes and tunnels hidden beneath pavement, buildings and other structures.

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is currently retrofitting its pipeline from Hetch-Hetchy to San Francisco with major concerns relating to earthquake protection of this essential resource. Our local water and sanitary districts manage many miles of subterranean pipelines and local utilities use underground pathways as well.

The best protection for surface dwellers is to at least be aware of what is traveling beneath your street and under your house. Utility companies are eager to inform their customers - on their web site or in person - of how their product reaches you. Public meetings - water districts (e.g. ACWD, SCVWD), sanitary districts (e.g. USD), public works departments, etc. - are an excellent way to ask questions, become familiar with those who manage these businesses and understand how safeguards work. Knowledge of these underground highways will not prevent all accidents, but it will help to provide an extra set of eyes, ears and nose to maintain vigilance.

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