Revolution Online, October 10, 2010

Correspondence on the San Bruno Fire

On Thursday, September 9, a neighborhood in the small town of San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco, was thrown into chaos and horror, when a natural gas pipeline deep underground exploded and turned this diverse, quiet neighborhood into a sea of fire. People literally melted in the near 1,000-degree temperature from the fireball that was created as the house they were in exploded in flames. A half dozen local TV stations cut regular programming to cover the story. One family told a local news station that they were driving in their car and saw a young man walking down the street begging for help. They hustled him into the back seat of their car, as his bones were literally pushing through his flesh. He and his girlfriend had been watching a football game on TV. He was not able to save her and he himself barely survived. He is still in intensive care. A firefighter described driving his fire truck within 100 yards of the fireball, when suddenly his windshield cracked—he could go no further. Hydrants had no water, as the explosion severely damaged a key water main.

The fire was so intense that residents and emergency personnel initially thought there had been a major aviation disaster, as the area is near a flight path of San Francisco airport. Seven people were killed and over 50 injured, at least nine critically. Thirty seven homes were totally destroyed, and 150 more damaged by flames, smoke or by being hit by debris that rained down on the neighborhood from the pipeline explosion. A 60-foot crater was left in the middle of the neighborhood, filled with water from firefighters' efforts. Fire-fighters were able to rig up a system of transporting water one fire truck at a time so as to ferry water to fight the many fires that resulted from the explosion.

Despite the extreme danger, there were many stories of people doing heroic things to save others. A woman described how she drove straight through the heat directly to her house, completely drenched in sweat as she reached the front door, gathered up her kids and husband and drove away as the vinyl on the windows of the house started to melt. One man interviewed by the press declined to wear the label "hero": "all I did was what anyone would have done if they had had the chance."

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A Morgan Stanley analyst assessed the impact of the fire one day after the blast: according to the SF Chronicle, Pacific Gas & Electric (the owner and maintainer of the pipeline) could face costs in the "hundreds of millions." On the same day, PG&E's stock fell in New York trading by 8.3%. This same analyst said that because of the San Bruno fire, PG&E could face a "challenging regulatory environment," meaning PG&E's ability to satisfy its stockholders and investors could be in jeopardy. In other words, PG&E may be forced to actually spend money on upgrading some of its pipelines to make them safe!

One thing that is very clear is that this did not have to happen. For example, it's come out that PG&E has a list of the 100 most dangerous sections of pipelines (in dire need of repair) in the SF Bay Area, and this pipeline, though known to be in need of repair, was not even on that list. The locations of most of these pipelines are not known to the public—many run haphazardly through neighborhoods, underneath houses, schools, streets, etc. PG&E has resisted pinpointing exactly where these pipelines are. Various comments have been made by engineers and others that have appeared in the local press about the dangers posed by these pipelines, and the need to understand what types of corrosion have occurred over the past 50+ years, as well as other questions about safety issues. One pipeline expert discussed how PG&E's method of testing is way outdated, years behind technology available for more thorough inspection and testing. Despite knowledge and expertise in this field and of the extent of problems that exist, most of the dangerous lines have continued to operate.

Although many people are coming to realize the grave danger that they and their families and neighbors are confronting, and are expressing these concerns, no substantive changes have been announced. Right now in the aftermath of the San Bruno disaster, some politicians are calling for "accountability," and for setting up "blue ribbon" investigative panels. Some of this may be influenced by right-wing populism, seemingly going after "big government"; others might be more sincere in their desire to change the situation. But as we have seen in other recent preventable disasters, such as the BP oil spill and Katrina, the people can't decisively have an effect on any of this, and it is because they fundamentally have no power in determining the direction of society. A system-made disaster hits, and the people are unable to reshape their environment to really meet the people's needs. This is guaranteed by the workings of the same system whose daily existence means the horrific suffering and agony of hundreds of millions daily on a world-wide scale—a failed economic and political system.

The scene and the devastation that unfolded that Thursday evening in the SF area was eerily reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the daily dimension of suffering endured by those living under this system... particular examples that come to mind are: the destruction of Fallujah in Iraq, the invasion of Gaza by the Israeli military. The wedding parties destroyed by bombs in Afghanistan. Poor villagers burned alive in Nigeria while trying to siphon small amounts of fuel from a leaking pipeline. Elements of this were there in San Bruno. The unbelievable destruction. The flames devouring whole blocks, unchecked. The helplessness of the people to do anything about it. The torment and suffering.

All of the efforts that could be taken to prevent such tragedies and safeguard the people—all the people's know-how and skill and intelligence—these assets are in effect locked up, put on ice, are incapable of being wielded by people and becoming a real force for good. It can't happen with this system in effect. It's not even that it's unlikely to occur—it's impossible. In San Bruno, one young woman's comments highlighted this dilemma when she said that if this untenable situation of dangerous pipelines is not remedied to her satisfaction, she will have to take matters into her own hands—and move. That is not the answer, but it does shed light on the problem. This system locks people out of having the actual ability of acting in their own interests and in the interests of humanity. But not only is it possible to change all this, in fact there is great potential for fundamental change. We need a new social system, one that provides the means for the people to play a decisive and increasingly widening role in the exercise of political power and the functioning of society, in accordance with the needs of humanity.

Following are links to a couple of photos:

A mother and daughter who died in the inferno.

An early daylight view of the fire.

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