Castro residents and merchants narrowly avoided disaster on Oct. 21 when a PG&E pipe was accidentally punctured at a construction site on 18th and Castro.

The leak disrupted the neighborhood with an evacuation of the area, street closures, and transit re-routes for several hours. In the wake of the incident, area merchants are raising questions about how the private companies involved, PG&E and NTK Construction, responded to the crisis.

Workers for NTK Construction hit the high pressure gas line with a backhoe at about 12:53 PM. That’s about the time when, the Bay Area Reporter reported last month, Terry Asten, the manager at Cliff’s Variety on 18th and Castro, noticed the workers sprinting away from the site, screaming “Run!”

Asten says that Muni drivers were the only ones who stayed behind, directing traffic and getting people out of the area and 20 minutes went by before anyone else showed up. Other merchants and residents joined Asten in voicing these complaints to PG&E at a neighborhood meeting on November 4th.

Patrick Batt, owner of Auto Erotica on the corner of 18th, had to hear about the leak via a phone call from his SFPD friend, who heard about it on the news. He wonders why nobody came to tell him about the leak, being that his business is right in the thick of it. To PG&E reps, he said “You did an outrageous, outrageously sloppy job, and you’re still doing it.”

Not only did the gas leak scare the hell out of everybody, it cost the local merchants a significant sum to close down for the evacuation. While PG&E representatives told the meeting attendees that claim forms were handed out to businesses around the leak, some merchants say they didn’t get the forms. Some even complain of receiving negative responses when contacting PG&E about filing a claim.

Accidents such as this are not uncommon. Last year there were 84 “Third-party dig-ins” into PG&E’s SF facilities, and a total of 1,905 in PG&E’s Northern California system.

In this incident’s case, there’s been a roundabout game of finger pointing with no conclusive information on what company or agency is ultimately responsible for the latest mistake. PG&E says NTK Construction is responsible. NTK points towards the Department of Public Works, the agency that hired them and the non-profit that keeps track of the cables and pipes below ground, Undergound Service Alert. A DPW spokesperson claims it was an Muni project. PG&E ultimately says that they will pay the merchant’s claims, but they will go after NTK to recoup the cost.

The Castro leak thankfully remained incomparable to the San Bruno disaster, but that doesn’t stop many from connecting the incidents , and the inadequate PG&E response, as failures of a monopolized utility system.

As SFWeekly’s Matt Smith points out, companies that have a monopoly on energy markets tend to spend money on attorneys and lobbyists rather than safety upgrades.

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