It took more than five years but in the end, the California Public Utilities Commission listened to the concerns of residents from Sacramento's Avondale/Glen Elder neighborhood and rejected a proposal to store 7.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas under their homes. It was the right decision.
As the three commissioners who voted against the proposal stated, the need for the project did not outweigh its potential risks. Those risks included gas leakage, water contamination and even explosions. While the risks were remote, the environmental impact report for the project found them to be unavoidable.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the target customer for the stored gas, has other less dangerous options for securing replacement gas supplies in the event of an interruption from PG&E pipelines. Given the uncertainties involved in storing gas at high pressures under a residential neighborhood, the project could not be justified, especially since there was no urgent need for it.
The deciding vote Thursday came from Commissioner Catherine J.K. Sandoval, who traveled to Sacramento last month to tour the Avondale/Glen Elder neighborhood and hear directly from residents. Sandoval had hinted at her misgivings about the Sacramento gas storage proposal at an earlier hearing. When she was a girl, she explained, her own family moved into a neighborhood in Los Angeles County built on top of an abandoned oil field where gas was stored. Ultimately the gas leaked, forcing homes to be evacuated and in some cases demolished.
Residents in Avondale/Glen Elder, a poor working-class neighborhood in south Sacramento, mounted an impressive effort against well-financed investors to defeat the gas storage project. Several times over the past few months, neighborhood activists traveled to San Francisco in buses to testify before the PUC. A large contingent was on hand for Thursday's vote. Constance Slider, a leader of the opposition, called it "an incredible battle, one of the biggest of my personal life and of this community's existence."
Kevin McCarty, the Sacramento councilman who represents the neighborhood, described it as a David and Goliath struggle and said that "David beat Goliath this time. The neighborhood worked so hard and they were heard."
It was also a good day for the PUC. Commissioners took an enormous amount of time and effort to weigh evidence from both sides and balance the risks and benefits Ultimately, the commission came down on the right side the side of public health and safety.