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Thursday, September 16, 2010

PG&E Cites Terror Threat in Refusal to Disclose Pipeline Routes

Posted By on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at 12:30 PM

Is it for the greater good that you don't know you're living on top of an aging pipeline? - SMI23LE
  • Smi23le
  • Is it for the greater good that you don't know you're living on top of an aging pipeline?
Is it for the greater good that you don't know you're living on top of an aging pipeline?
In the wake of the San Bruno explosion and fire, PG&E has been pressured to reveal the locations of the pipelines it deems "high risk." It has demurred, citing the possibility of a terrorist attack. A cynic might say PG&E is concerned outsiders will blow up its pipes before it does.

A handful of terrorism and security experts contacted by SF Weekly all agreed that PG&E's concerns were "reasonable" -- but noted that this is a near perfect epitome of homeland security's classic conundrum: The right of the public to know about risks vs. exposing risks to those with malevolent intentions.

Frank Cilluffo, the director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute, compared disclosure of pipeline locations with labeling toxic content in rail tank cars or public databases listing exactly where and how much of certain toxic chemicals are being stored.

"This is a complex issue that comes up in many different forms," he says. "There are genuine security implications. But there are also genuine rights for citizens to know what's in your backyard."

Georgetown Professor Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism and insurgency expert, agreed that PG&E's stated concern was "not unreasonable," as terrorists do mine public information. He added, however, that he cannot "assess PG&E's motivation or intent" for keeping this information close to the vest.

Incidentally, safety concerns trumped security questions with regard to rail cars -- tankers hazardous materials are now prominently marked. But you still can't find the detailed online information about the location and quantity of where noxious chemicals were being stored that you could in pre-9-11 days.

Following the terror attacks of 2001, much online "geospatial information" about the nation's infrastructure was yanked -- including national pipeline maps. The vast majority of that information, however, has returned to the public domain. Since early last decade, federal regulations have required "pipeline operators to carry out a continuing public education program to

advise municipalities, school districts, businesses, and residents

about a variety of pipeline safety-related matters, including pipeline


  • National Pipeline Mapping System
National Pipeline Mapping System
"Mapping the Risks," a 2004 study by the RAND corporation, explored the dangers -- or lack thereof -- of online geospatial information. Among the findings of that report:

  • Fewer than 6 percent of the 629 federal geospatial information datasets the study's authors examined appeared as though they could be useful to a potential attacker
  • Fewer than 1 percent of the 629 federal datasets appeared both potentially useful and unique
SF Weekly's calls to PG&E have not yet been returned. But San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said first responders are aware of the location of the city's pipelines. "How we got that information, I'm not sure. But we don't have maps," she said.

Those hoping to discover if they live above or near a pipeline can call PG&E and obtain that information, Talmadge continued. But, again, general maps are not being handed out.

"There are good questions being asked on all sides," says Cilluffo. "But I would not want to make [pipeline] information publicly available on the Internet where someone could map out where the infrastructure is and literally wreak havoc."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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