Near San Francisco, there’s a California neighborhood in a California town that’s named after an 11th Century monk who was known for the clarity of his teaching. That’s fitting, because we can learn a lot about how the once-golden state of California became a permanent state of dysfunction called Crazifornia if we look at what happened in that town, San Bruno, on September 9, 2010.
Roughly equidistant between the Pacific Ocean to the west and San Francisco International Airport to the east, San Bruno is modest. In one typically modest San Bruno neighborhood – the one that became tragically famous on that pleasant fall day in 2010 – Honda Accords and Dodge minivans fill the driveways of homes that have a simple, no-nonsense architectural style dominated by pastel wood siding and inexpensive asphalt shingles.
This is a place not at all like the wealthier enclaves of Nob Hill to the north or Palo Alto to the south, where the Bay Area’s blue bloods and high-tech billionaires live. It is instead a neighborhood called home primarily by the working stiffs of the Bay Area.
Just east of the neighborhood is a jagged depression that’s so pronounced it’s visible to airline passengers flying in and out of San Francisco International. It’s the San Andreas Fault, but it wasn’t this unstable and dangerous neighbor that made the neighborhood famous. It was the ineptitude of California’s government.
It was late afternoon, and the big Orange California sun was dropping toward Sweeney Ridge just west of the blue-collar neighborhood. Families were preparing dinner and catching up on the day’s activities when, at 6:11 p.m., a section of pipe in a 30-inch-diameter intrastate natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric ruptured near the corner of Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue, at the entry to the neighborhood. A half-million cubic feet of natural gas gushed out of the pipeline in the first minute after the rupture, and for every one of the 94 additional minutes that passed before PG&E finally was able to shut down the flow of natural gas.
Almost instantly after the first molecules of the highly explosive gas escaped the pipeline’s confines, something ignited it – quite possibly a gas stove heating up dinner in one of the nearby homes. The resulting explosion and inferno obliterated that home and 37 others and killed eight people. It created a crater, now filled in, that was big enough to swallow any of the houses destroyed in the explosion. The twisted remains of the ruptured section of pipe, weighing 3,000 pounds and about as long as three elephants lined up nose-to-tail, lay smoking where the explosion hurled it, 100 feet away.
Tammy Zapata was cooking dinner in her house on Earl Drive and her husband, Mike, and daughter Amanda were watching television when the natural gas exploded into a roaring, roiling Hell. On the first anniversary of the explosion, Tammy told the San Francisco public television station KQED what it was like:1
No matter how high up you looked, all you could see was fire. You couldn’t see anything. My daughter was so freaked out that she couldn’t move. And Mike kept trying to get her out of the house; he actually picked her up and like tossed her. It wasn’t so much what you could see at that point, it was the noise. The noise was so loud, it was deafening. You couldn’t hear yourself, let alone anyone else. It sounded just like a plane crashed in our backyard.
We were trapped. When you’re in a dream and you’re trying to run as fast as you can, but you feel like you’re getting nowhere like you’re in quicksand? That’s how it felt. No matter how fast or how hard you tried to move, the house just kept sucking you back in.
Just then, their neighbor Joe Ruigomez, a 19-year-old college student, ran up from his house next door to the Zapatas. It had just been destroyed, killing his girlfriend, who had been watching the season’s first football game with him, less than two hours after Ruigomez had posted on his Facebook page, “Finally the NFL season has arrived, gonna be a good year.”2 Zapata continued her story:
He had no skin. It looked like he had a shredded t-shirt, but it was the skin all melted off him. His face was all white. You could hardly see features. In fact, he still had smoke coming off his entire body. When he tried to open the door to get in, he couldn’t. Because his hands were so badly burned.
Just 300 yards from the explosion site, firefighters at the San Bruno Fire Station felt the explosion shake their station before they heard it, and as they rushed to the scene, they could see an ugly gushing flames and black smoke just ahead of them. It would be two days until they could roll up their hoses after the last flames were finally extinguished.
The pipeline accident report of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB),3 which regulates pipelines and investigates their explosions, found 28 contributing factors to the explosion, but two stand out. The first is that the section of pipe that ruptured had defects so pronounced they should have been visible to the PG&E work crews and state inspectors when the pipe was installed in 1954.
The second is that the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decided against all logic in 1961 that its newly adopted pipeline inspection standards would not be applied to pipelines that were in place prior to that year. The pre-1961 pipelines would be grandfathered, not subject to the new standards. If not for the PUC’s decision, the pipeline would have undergone hydrostatic pressure tests that very likely would have revealed the defect under San Bruno. “There is no safety justification for the grandfather clause exempting pre-1970 pipelines from the requirement for post-construction hydrostatic pressure testing,” the NTSB report found.
Yet for 56 years, the PUC sat by as these grandfathered pipelines got older and more susceptible to failure. Even after another fatal pipeline explosion two years earlier, neither the Legislature nor the PUC thought to revisit the utility’s grandfathered natural gas pipelines. In that incident, another PG&E gas pipeline exploded in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova on Christmas Eve and killed one person, injured five others and caused severe damage to two homes.
It’s not as if PG&E isn’t regulated. No, it and every other utility in California, and every manufacturer, and every homebuilder, and every farmer, and all their second cousins are up to their ears in tough regulations and eager regulators. Rather, the San Bruno catastrophe happened because the state is regulated in ways that are either corrupted or driven by questionable policies. The grandfathering of old pipelines stands as one of the more tragic examples of how influence and power corrupt California’s regulatory model, just as influence and power corrupt every capitol in America and around the world.
In 1961, the influence and power was squarely in the hands of business interests, so state policy mirrored business policy, and old pipelines were exempted from costly regulations. But today, the influence and power reside with public employee unions, trial lawyers and environmentalists, explaining the current state of California’s policy-driven regulations. One popular policy, which took hold in 1969, was that all schools, whether in rich or poor neighborhoods, should be equal. California succeeded splendidly at regulating equality into its school system: It simply diminished the quality of the good schools in wealthy areas.
Today the policy that most drives California state government, and that busied the PUC when it should have been thinking about how to prevent pipeline explosions, is a commitment to single-handedly saving the planet from the ravages of global warming. (In the past couple of years, of course, global warming advocates have worked tirelessly to rename it “climate change,” a broader category that will keep the regulators in power even if temperatures don’t rise.)
Consequently, PG&E and the state’s other utilities are told to stop being so reliant on cheap and dependable carbon-based energy and find ways to quickly meet 30 percent of the state’s electrical demand through costly and less reliable clean energy, like wind and solar. On top of that, the utilities are now is required to pay millions of dollars annually in taxes on their greenhouse gases – and to spend millions more on equipment and personnel to monitor those gases in order to compute the taxes.
That all this money obviously would be passed on to the public, and even more obviously, would be better spent on pipeline inspections and maintenance, doesn’t sway policy-driven regulators from their Quixotic mission to save the planet … instead of saving Joe Ruigomez’s girlfriend and seven of his neighbors.
Catastrophe as a Change Agent
The eight people who died in the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion should be immortalized for showing so well that years of control by Progressive politicians, environmentalists, unions and trial lawyers have reduced once-proud California to a collection of ongoing near-catastrophes that are beginning to erupt.
The stories told in Crazifornia reveal a state that has become so misdirected, ungovernable and untenable that the primary driver of change has become the catastrophe. Californians saw that as the state Legislature leapt into action after the San Bruno explosion, quickly passing new pipeline safety bills.
Californians, who just 50 years ago showed post-war America how to capture its wildest dreams, are now reduced to watching in disbelief as the state’s budget, schools, economy and infrastructure teeter on the precipice, while entrenched political differences and powerful special interests keep anyone from hitting the brakes or grabbing the steering wheel. Many would welcome the crash, because it’s increasingly clear that the only way to fix California is to pick it up after everything explodes or collapses.
I was recently talking about one of California’s greatest catastrophes in waiting, its water delivery system, with one of state’s more opinionated water leaders, Peer Swan. I asked the long-time board member of the Association of California Water Agencies what he thought would happen in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the collapsing hub of the state’s water network.
The Delta is 57 islands, two-thirds of which have sunken below sea level and are protected by over 1,100 miles of levees, many built by Chinese coolie laborers over a century ago. Riddled with rodent holes and roots and built over unstable peat moss-rich soil, the levees are at risk of liquefying if the Hayward Fault, a little cousin of the more famous San Andreas fault, starts shaking. If enough levees fail, seawater will flow into the Delta from San Francisco Bay and eventually reach the big pumps that push fresh water from the Delta to thirsty cities and farm fields from the Bay Area to San Diego.
Delta waters are awash with chemicals from farms and bacteria from more than a hundred upstream wastewater treatment plants. Big mouth bass, Asian mussels, water hyacinth and other non-native invasive species thrive there, displacing the natural ecosystem, including the Delta smelt, which became famous when environmentalist lawsuits brought to protect it succeeded in dramatically reducing the pumping of water from the Delta.
California’s water leaders have been trying for years to find a way to avoid these multiple looming disasters that jeopardize the delivery of water to the state’s most fertile farmland and most populated regions, and Swan was quick to sum up the results of their efforts. “Oh, we’ll fix it,” he replied, waiting a couple beats before adding, “After it collapses and the catastrophe hits.”
After 30 years in California public affairs, looking at the state close-up, I think he’s right. The state may solve some problems proactively, but they’ll be the exception and governance by train wreck is likely to become the norm.
In the pages that follow, I could lay out the next in an ongoing series of grand proposals to save California, but what good would that be? Many books have laid out such visions in great specificity, but none of them has worked because all are predicated to some degree or another on California voters, legislators, liberal and environmental interest groups, unions and trial lawyers suddenly changing their philosophies and letting go of their power. Where is the evidence that will happen?
Instead, Crazifornia will tell you stories, many, many stories, of California’s dysfunction and ineptitude, some funny, some sad, but all frustrating because a state with this much greatness really should be able to solve its myriad messes before catastrophes sink it. In the course of reading these reports of what actually goes on in the once-Golden State, I hope you will come to share my belief that what turned California into Crazifornia – and what very likely will keep it crazy – are the state’s strong liberal and Progressive traditions. Even though this is much more a story book than a policy book, I hope that by shining a light on some of the more egregious acts of bad governance that tarnish California, things might start becoming more sensible in this state of my birth.
But I have to admit that my wife and I were recently checking out homes in Texas.
 Brooks, Jon, “San Bruno Stories: ‘He still had smoke coming off his entire body,’” News Fix blog, KQED News, Aug. 30, 2011. http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2011/08/30/san-bruno-stories-he-still-had-smoke-coming-off-his-entire-body/
2 “Friend: Woman, 20, at boyfriend’s house when killed by fire,” Bay City News, Sept. 11, 2010. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/baycitynews/archive/2010/09/11/firevictim11.DTL
3“Pipeline Accident Report: San Bruno, CA, Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion and Fire, September 9, 2010,” National Transportation Safety Board, http://www.ntsb.gov/news/events/2011/san_bruno_ca/index.html