By Eric Wickboldt
On November 9, 2004, an explosion erupted in Walnut Creek. Energy company Kinder Morgan neglected to mark a bend in one of its gasoline pipelines, killing five workers and injuring four others attempting to install a water main in the same location.
Sixteen years later, on November 20, 2020, a leak emerged on the same pipeline at South Broadway near Las Lomas. Officials had detected a pressure drop, prompting them to shut down specific segments of the pipeline. Workers repaired the leak later in November, but not before tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline escaped into the gravel bed backfill underneath the San Ramon Bypass flood channel. The gasoline found a preferential pathway and traveled slowly north down the channel until it met up with the Walnut Creek channel near Civic Park, where it escaped from below the concrete through a crack in an expansion joint. When Kinder Morgan found out on December 2, it sent workers to deal with the issue and establish a cleanup operation.
The leak did not result in the same devastation as the 2004 explosion, and the situation is now under control. However, the leak disappointed many residents nearby, irritated at the way that Kinder Morgan and the city of Walnut Creek have been handling the situation.
“[In] the short term, the noise and the construction activity and the smell of gasoline has affected us in our home,” said Jeff Thomas, a resident of Greenway Drive whose house borders the Walnut Creek channel and who lives one street away from where the operation is taking place. “It has kept us up at night and really bothered our pets, our dogs and our chickens and our bees.” He went on to state, “Long term, this could [have] a potential effect, one [on] my property value, but also environmentally…does it affect my ground water…[and] the trees in my yard?”
Bob Lindfors, whose residence is less than 50 yards from where the cleanup is taking place and whose street served as an access area for the intersection between the channels, echoed similar concerns about disturbances and soil contamination: “I advise anyone with property along the channel to ask for soil borings and testing of soil and groundwater samples to assess whether fuel products have migrated.” Lindfors also expressed discontent towards Kinder Morgan as well as the city of Walnut Creek’s job of communicating the issue to nearby residents: “City officials seem distanced from the problem. As far as I can tell, there has been ZERO outreach from the city of Walnut Creek.”
Thomas reaffirmed this concern about a lack of communication, stating, “There was this kind of quagmire of misinformation…or no information for nearly two weeks.”
In addition to disturbances, environmental worries and lack of communication, both Thomas and Lindfors expressed concerns about the safety of the situation, concerns that a perceived lack of effective communication from Kinder Morgan or the city of Walnut Creek amplified. Lindfors mentioned, “At first there was palpable fear in the neighborhood about possible ongoing leaks and explosions (remembering the 2004 explosion).”
Thomas stated, “I’d like for this to be resolved as quickly as possible and for minimal harm to our community and our environment. I realize that the pipeline is a vital artery to supply safe gasoline and fuel to our community, but that we have to be vigilant about maintaining it safely and preventing any environmental emergencies or disasters.”
The cleanup is still ongoing. As of January 11, Kinder Morgan has recovered 17,409 of the estimated 31,500 to 42,000 gallons of gasoline.