Call before you dig.
It's a common refrain heard from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. advising people to make sure that when they delve below the surface, they don't hit an electrical line, gas main or other utility.
But Pavement Recycling Systems, the company that owns and was operating the road grinder that was destroyed in Monday's natural gas explosion and fire in northeast Bakersfield, did call, and did receive tacit clearance from PG&E.
"This company did that," acknowledged local PG&E spokeswoman Katie Allen. "They had a valid USA tag."
USA, or Underground Service Alert, is a free service for homeowners and professional contractors who are planning to dig, trench, drill, grade or otherwise excavate below the surface.
But the process didn't appear to be effective in helping Pavement Recycling avoid tearing into a natural gas main located much closer to the road surface than standards permit.
Following the explosion that led to the evacuation of several residences in the 2900 block of Alta Vista Drive, Pavement Recycling employees measured the depth of the gas main.
"We measured it at 4 inches," said a company spokeswoman. "The standard is 30 inches."
While the employee operating the grinder was able to escape unharmed, the heavy machine was a total loss. A new grinder can cost nearly as much as $1 million, the spokeswoman said.
Had an employee or resident been standing nearby when the gas main burst, the outcome could have been much worse -- "horrific," she said.
Plans for the road improvement project include grinding excess asphalt from Alta Vista and then resurfacing the road -- between Columbus Street and Panorama Drive, said Craig Pope, director of the Kern County Roads Department, the agency overseeing the project.
"It's probably 80 years old," Pope said of the street. "It may never have been designed quite right."
He said he can't say for sure whether the street has ever been scraped before.
PG&E spokeswoman Allen said the utility is investigating the incident.
But PG&E's self-investigation isn't sufficient, said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, an industry watchdog group based in San Francisco. Spatt said PG&E can't be expected to objectively police itself.
"It's the CPUC's (California Public Utility Commission's) job to hold them accountable," Spatt said, although she added that the commission's track record in that regard is not stellar.
The CPUC said in an email Wednesday evening that it is investigating the incident but could not provide more details as the investigation is ongoing.
PG&E has said in recent years it is focusing more on public safety -- especially since the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion that left eight dead and an entire neighborhood devastated.
"This latest incident does not exactly restore confidence in PG&E," Spatt said.
When contractors use the "Call before you dig" program, she noted, when PG&E has been aware of the resurfacing project for months and the utility is still unable to identify a serious safety hazard in its own pipeline complex, it raises questions about PG&E's ability to prevent dangerous accidents in the future.
"In situations like this, what are customers supposed to think?" Spatt said.
Pope, with county roads, said he doesn't think the county will have any significant legal exposure regarding the replacement cost of the grinder.
"Others are out in front on this," he said. "PG&E has a lot of explaining to do."