Police keep reporters out; utility company cites security concerns in withholding records
On Sept. 9, 2010, an underground gas pipeline in San Bruno, Calif. exploded, killing four people and wounding 52. Media access to the disaster site and to documentation of other potentially dangerous pipelines was limited both by police responding to the incident and by the utility company.
The explosion occurred around 6:15 p.m. on September 9, according to a September 10 story by the San Jose Mercury News. Residents in the area had reported smelling gas in the week leading up to the disaster, which destroyed 31 homes and seriously damaged eight more. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the utility company that owns and maintains the gas line that exploded, said the line that ruptured was 30 inches in diameter and between 40 and 50 years old.
On September 10, the Mercury News reported that San Bruno police had declared the affected area a "crime scene" in "a routine move that limits access to the area until authorities determine that no foul play was involved." In a blog post on the SF Weekly website, Joe Eskenazi wrote September 13 that by using the designation "crime" rather than "disaster," authorities unnecessarily "kept media out." Citing § 409.5 of the California Penal Code, Eskenazi said that using the "disaster" designation would have allowed police enough authority to keep "gawkers, looters and others" away from the scene while they searched and cleared it without restricting media access. Section 409.5 states that "Nothing in this section shall prevent a duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, or radio or television station or network from entering the areas closed pursuant to this section." However, Eskenazi wrote that the designation of the area as a crime scene meant that the exception for reporters pertaining to disaster scenes did not apply. By "treating the entire 10-acre fire zone as the equivalent of a murder room," he wrote, San Bruno police "severely restricted" media access to the scene.
Eskenazi quoted reporter Michael Cabanatuan of the San Francisco Chronicle saying he was "ordered out" of the neighborhood affected by the explosion on the evening of September 9, before the area was declared a crime scene. "We told them that we have access to disaster areas. I did that both individually and with other reporters. But they said 'no, we won't let you in,'" Cabanatuan said.
Eskenazi also quoted Anthony Hare of the San Francisco Forensic Institute and University of California, Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, who previously worked as an incident commander with the Oakland Police Department. Eskenazi wrote that the "crime scene" designation "struck [Hare] as odd." Hare told Eskenazi that "The very law that gives [authorities] the right to declare a critical incident and exclude the public says the press is exempt from this exclusion. That drives a lot of police, fire, and disaster managers crazy. But that's how you keep us honest."
Limits to access and transparency continued in the aftermath of the San Bruno explosion. On September 15, San Francisco website The Bay Citizen reported that PG&E was refusing to release information about other pipelines in the area, citing "security concerns." The Bay Citizen reported that the disaster "laid bare" concerns over California's aging gas pipeline system, but that PG&E's secrecy regarding its network was "raising concern among First Amendment advocates." The Bay Citizen quoted James Wheaton, senior counsel at advocacy group First Amendment Project, asking "If PG&E knows about risky pipelines, why would they keep that secret?"
Sari Koshetz, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told The Bay Citizen that it "does not encourage utilities to keep the locations of gas pipelines that are a high-risk for failure from the public" but discourages utility companies from displaying complete system maps online "for obvious security reasons." Because PG&E pipeline information is held by a private corporation, it is not covered by the California Public Records Act, Government Code §§ 6250 - 6276.48.
Heather Ishimaru of San Francisco's KGO-TV reported October 14 that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced that it had assembled a team of experts to investigate the explosion. Ishimaru reported that the CPUC would look for "the root cause of the disaster" and review PG&E's business practices. Ishimaru reported that, in addition to the CPUC investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the incident, and PG&E is conducting an internal investigation. The NTSB report is available online at http://www.ntsb.gov/Surface/pipeline/Preliminary-Reports/San-Bruno-CA.html. As the Bulletin went to press, none of the investigations had been completed.
- SARA CANNON
SILHA CENTER STAFF