Out of tragedy, the PG&E Gas Safety Academy is born


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Winters began a new chapter last week, entitled “Grand Opening of PG&E Gas Safety Academy.” The inauguration of world-class natural gas safety training occurring in our little town was a turning of the page in our history book.

Will it be for the better or worse? That depends on how you define “better” and “worse.” If you long for the days when “everybody knew your name,” and funky little bars and hamburger stands, maybe it’s for the worse. If you look forward to having nice sidewalks and parks, and more than five homes for sale at any given point in time, maybe it’s for the better.

Let’s give it the Starbucks test, given that one is opening here soon. If you feel sick inside about that, change is for the worse. If you just can’t wait to get a Pumpkin Spice Latte, it’s for better. Like most things in life, nothing’s really “better” or “worse,” but a matter of perception. The opinion on the web is quite different depending on whether you’re the spider or the fly. But it’s all the same web.

Me, I miss lots of things. The Irish Pub. Greenwood’s. Goodstuff. On the other hand, it’s sure nice to zip into Dollar General when I need something quickly and don’t feel like driving to Vacaville. And our new wine tasting rooms and brewery are simply fantastic. Being a Gemini, I’m comfortable with conflicting feelings.

Mixed feelings about Winters’ trajectory aside, I must say that this Gas Safety Academy is truly amazing, from the design to the training opportunities offered. I’m nearly giddy over the potential it offers for inspiring young people to imagine careers they might never have considered. College isn’t for everyone. Pursuing a vocation is admirable, and arguably the smartest choice of all, because training for a trade means a solid career future, particularly when that trade that can’t be outsourced. You can’t lay bricks or pour cement from a call center in India, and you can’t construct or repair natural gas pipelines from there either.

While touring the facility with the PG&E spokespersons, I told one of our guides that it was only about 10 years ago when the biggest news in town was that we were getting a real stoplight, with three colors. Wowsers.

(By the way… I miss the old flashing red light. It said “home.”)

The turnout at the grand opening was impressive, with elected officials from all over the area in attendance. What surprised me, however, was the lack of televised media attendance. I saw a CBS crew, but that was it. I’m mystified why the televised media wasn’t all over this story, because lest we forget, the reason this Gas Safety Academy materialized was the tragedy that occurred in San Bruno in 2010.

On September 9 of that year, one of the most horrific accidents in California history occurred: An underground natural gas pipeline (just like the one running through Winters) exploded, incinerating more than 30 homes and damaging scores more. Eight people died that day, and many more were injured. The explosion was recorded on the Richter scale with the impact of a 1.1 magnitude earthquake, creating a wall of fire more than a thousand feet high, and a crater 167 feet long, 26 feet wide and 40 feet deep.

Utter horror. It was just some random, average day, people were just putzing around their homes, and in a split second, hell literally let loose.

Of course, the televised media swirled around that nightmare and carnage like piranhas on a pig carcass, almost indulgently so, and print media was quick to point to PG&E’s culpability. Technically, of course PG&E was responsible. The accident occurred on their pipeline. That said — surely PG&E never intended or desired the explosion, let alone foresaw it.

Was the pipeline maintained properly? In retrospect, no. But — how do you know what you don’t know? How do you know how pipelines will age until they do? PG&E thought they were maintaining their lines. They were wrong. Not maliciously wrong, just… wrong. What other option is there than to examine the failure and set forth to correct policies and procedures to ensure it doesn’t happen again? And, that is the singular goal of this Gas Safety Academy — protecting lives going forward.

To emphasize this “safety first” ethos, the actual piece of exploded San Bruno pipe is on display in the lobby. This somber reminder is the first thing workers and trainees see when they arrive and the last thing they see when they go home. Above the huge, mangled pipe, a plaque commemorates those who died that day. “Never forget” isn’t only about 9/11. It accentuates why safety, from end to end of the pipelines and everywhere in between, really matters.

The most poignant moment of the grand opening ceremony was when our Assembly Woman, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, before speaking a word about the new facility, acknowledged Senator Jerry Hill, who represents the San Bruno area.

“Your county has been through a lot,” she said to Hill. “Thank you for being here.”

Hill acknowledged her greeting with a soft nod. It was, truly, a Moment.

So again, I wonder… why was the televised media, as well as larger regional newspapers, not in attendance? Why is tragedy an irresistible attraction, while healing and recovery are not?  The lack of attendance speaks volumes about our media as well. The Express was there, however, and the Enterprise was too. So was the Sacramento Business Journal. CBS had a news crew there, but the rest were MIA.

Is “shame on you” out of fashion these days?

Ah well. Most Californians will trundle on, never thinking about the lines of flammable and potentially explosive chemicals running right under their feet every day. And why won’t they think about it? Hopefully because there will never again be a tragedy like the one that occurred in San Bruno, thanks to the big new Gas Safety Academy, right here in little old Winters.



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