Cold, frustrated Charleston West Side residents still dealing with gas outage after five days
Youth from the Islamic Center of West Virginia serve Thanksgiving Dinner at the SHOP on Charleston’s West Side. About half of the those who came to the event were affected by the gas outage on Charleston’s West Side, according to SHOP director Derek Hudson. (Laura Harbert Allen | West Virginia Watch)
On Friday night, West Side resident Carolyn Wesley went to see a show at the Clay Center in downtown Charleston. Before she left, she noticed it was a little chilly in the house. “I told my husband to check the furnace,” she said. “But he thought it was fine.”
When she got back home hours later, the house was still cold. Her husband went down to the basement.
“He told me there was no gas coming into the house,” she said.
A few blocks away, on Tennessee Avenue, Cameo Denton and her family, including her 5-year-old son, Chayton, woke up cold on Saturday morning. Like Wesley, at first she thought it was a problem with her furnace. Then she saw the news, and learned that her family were among hundreds of West Side residents who were without gas to cook or heat their homes.
“We spent the weekend trying to heat our apartment with the electric stove,” Denton said.
The Wesleys and the Dentons are among around 1,000 West Side residents who will be without gas for heating, hot water or cooking for up to a week, according to the latest information provided by Mountaineer Gas officials.
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West Side residents at
According to the gas company, the outage occurred because of a “significant sustained water leak” that infiltrated the company’s natural gas distribution system. Moses Skaff, the company’s senior vice president, said the leak flooded 46 miles of its West Side distribution system. The lines have to be drained and dried before gas is restored to homes.
But the problem, Skaff said, “grew gradually.” Water main outages occurred on the West Side during the day on Friday, and “customers started calling in that they were out of gas, Friday, late afternoon,” he said.
Meanwhile, American Water workers completed water main repairs by Saturday morning.
By then, water had spread throughout gas lines in the neighborhood, crippling gas powered heating systems, hot water tanks and cooking stoves in homes and businesses.
The water pressure during the main break was so high it bore a hole in Mountaineer Gas’ main line, which is made of steel, Skaff said. From there, it went through the service lines in the streets to customer lines.
“It was so much pressure on that water that it went all the way back into the houses through a less-than-a-quarter-inch pipe,” Skaff said. “That kind of tells you the pressure of what we’re experiencing.”
A spokesman for the water company said it will work with the gas company to determine how the incident happened “at a later date.”
Sporadic communication, frustrated residents
West Side resident Sarah Stone said Tuesday her home is without heat and water. Her heating, ventilation and air conditioning system is waterlogged from the water that infiltrated the gas lines.
Stone said she was frustrated with a lack of communication about the situation over the weekend.
“We went the entire weekend with no update from the city, from the water or from the gas company,” Stone said. “We all knew that we were in trouble. We didn’t know the extent. And most of our information until [Monday] afternoon has come from neighbors who have basically accosted the gas company boots on the ground people who just were like, ‘Hey, level with us here. What’s going on?’”
WCHS-TV reported Friday evening that water main breaks were causing water issues and a gas outage on the West Side. Mountaineer Gas first posted on Facebook about the outage around 11 a.m. Saturday. At the time, the company said the outage affected 700 residents. The company estimated that restoration “may be as early as Monday evening.”
In another post Monday Nov. 13, the company said 1,111 customers were without gas service and that “some customers will be without gas services for several more days.”
Bradley Harris, a spokesman for West Virginia American Water, said the company issued a precautionary boil water advisory in relation to the water leak at 8:26 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11. It was lifted at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, he said.
Stone said some people have internet access to check news sites and social media, but not everyone has internet access. With better communication, Stone said, West Side residents could have made plans for their families.
“If they just keep us like mushrooms, then we’re screwed… Keeping us in the dark and feeding us bulls—, we have no way of making it through this gracefully.”
When people don’t have information, she said, it leaves room for misinformation.
“And that’s unfair, too,” Stone said.
Martec Washington, a West Side resident who ran for mayor last year, echoed Stone’s frustration.
“Everybody says the West Side is forgotten, and this literally showed us that we are forgotten and that no one cares,” Washington said. “If it was not for people on the West Side, no help would be anywhere on the West Side. Now there has been tons of outside help to come in, but that was only after people on the West Side started moving and shaking.”
In an interview Wednesday, Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin said the city was alerted to a possible water and gas issue Friday evening but even Saturday was not aware of the extent of the problem or how long it would take to restore service.
“I don’t think anybody knew, anybody knew — water company, gas company, city,” Goodwin said. “That’s just truthful. Because number one, we’ve never had something like this happen before, and number two, I think that they were troubleshooting. And most important, and I think most significant to this is we were disseminating and listening to information that was coming into us.
The last thing the city should do, she said, is put out information when officials don’t know what’s going on.
On Saturday, when the gas company indicated that the problem may be bigger than it first anticipated, Goodwin said the city was directly involved in the response, working with the Red Cross and Bream Memorial Presbyterian Church to set up an emergency shelter for residents without heat.
Goodwin said the city has been in contact with the gas company every day, and reiterated that the utility should have direct communication with residents and not wait to share information, even if it is incomplete.
Goodwin said the city learned the gravity of the situation during a meeting Monday morning with Mountaineer Gas, West Virginia American Water and others.
“Do I think they did a great job of communicating? Absolutely not,” she said. “Could we have done more? Possibly, but my challenge was then as it still is, always, when you send out something, especially emergency response, it better be right.”
West Virginia Watch spoke with several West Side residents who stopped by Bream Memorial Presbyterian Church’s SHOP this week to pick up blankets, food and electric space heaters, donated by United Way of Central West Virginia.
Everyone we spoke with said they were not notified by West Virginia Water or Mountaineer Gas about the disruption to their service. Instead, they said, the news spread through social media, phone calls and text messages between neighbors.
“The lack of communication from Mountaineer Gas and from West Virginia American Water is completely unacceptable,” said Del. Mike Pushkin, a West Side resident and Democratic state delegate representing Kanawha County.
Pushkin said everyone understands that accidents happen, but utility companies have a responsibility to notify their customers of an outage.
“Here’s the problem, we know that utility companies have a way to contact us,” Pushkin said. “They contact us if we’re late making a payment. They will contact you before you are shut off for failure to pay. So they should have been able, and they are able to contact us before they shut off because of an incident like this.”
But Skaff said the company did not know the extent of the problem over the weekend.
“It was not an intentional not notifying,” Skaff said. “We put out press releases starting on Saturday. Our first social post was on Saturday. And then quite frankly, we were scrambling around to actually see the full extent of the situation.”
Reaching people was also a challenge, he said. The company’s system does not require email addresses or phone numbers for customers. Many of the customers are renters, he said, so the system was not capable of warning them.
He said the company worked with local officials Monday morning to send reverse 911 notifications to people for whom phone numbers were available.
“Unfortunately we cannot give definitive answers on restoration because this is not like an electrical company that has grids that they could just turn on and off,” Skaff said. “Or a water company that can turn off a valve. You have to understand that in my 32 years of working with Mountaineer Gas Company, I have never seen the extremities of what happened in this area, where mass volumes of high pressure water lines flooded our system.”
And there is no consistent policy regarding how utilities communicate service outages with their customers, or that they coordinate those communications among themselves when multiple utilities are involved.
According to Public Service Commission rules for water utilities on file with the Secretary of State’s office, water utilities shall “upon request, give its customers such information and assistance as is reasonable, in order that customers may enjoy safe and efficient service.”
In the event of unscheduled interruptions, water utilities are required to notify the state Bureau for Public Health and to alert the public in one or more of the following ways: fax or email to local TV and radio stations, the utility’s own website or emergency phone line and other types of notice at the discretion of the utility including doorknob flyers, email, text messages or an automated dialing system.
Gas companies are required to alert customers in the event of planned disruptions, but the rules specifically do not require the utility to alert customers in the event of interruption because of “emergency, accidents, acts of God, public enemies, or strikes which are beyond the control of the utility.”
Washington said the water company should take responsibility and apologize to West Side residents for the water line break that infiltrated the gas lines. That the company has also recently asked the Public Service Commission for another rate hike is “disrespectful to the community,” Washington said.
“You keep asking for rate hikes to fix your infrastructure, but yet there was no failsafe if there’s a water main leak into a gas line.”
Since 2005, American Water customers in West Virginia have seen the monthly cost for 3100 gallons of water rise fourteen times — from $29.54 to $65.99, a 123.4% increase, according to the Consumer Advocate Division of the Public Service Commission, as reported by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Mountaineer Gas asked the PSC in March to approve an approximately 6 percent increase in base customer rates effective in January.
Goodwin said there would have to be a “very long and robust” discussion about rate increases that the gas and water companies have requested.
“The cost of the utilities should not be put upon the residents when they can’t provide the service which they are required to do, that they are expected to do from a public utility,” the mayor said. “And so yes, we are engaged in the conversation and quite frankly, we should be.”
A class action lawsuit and a state of emergency
On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Jim Justice issued a state of emergency for Kanawha County due to the gas outage.
“In light of the prolonged duration of this major gas outage on Charleston’s West Side, which has left over a thousand families without heat, hot water, or stoves, I am declaring a State of Emergency and activating the resources of the West Virginia National Guard,” Justice said in the statement. The governor also asked the Public Service Commission to investigate the cause and “and hold the responsible parties accountable. This will not get swept under the rug and disappear without answers,” he said.
Charleston law firms Calwell Luce diTrapano and Forbes Law Offices have filed a class action lawsuit against Mountaineer Gas and West Virginia American Water in Kanawha County Circuit Court on behalf of an affected West Side resident.
“The presence of water in natural gas lines is dangerous and renders the lines unavailable for use, and hundreds of residents are suffering without heat during consecutive cold evenings,” diTrapano said in a statement Wednesday. “West Virginia American Water knew or should have known that the high-pressure water main was prone to failure because of its construction, joints, layout, and usage characteristics and the lack of standard, required maintenance and repair. And Mountaineer Gas knew or should have known that West Virginia American Water has a history of poor maintenance and repair and catastrophic failure, and they failed to take necessary precautions to prevent the contamination of the gas lines with water.”
Steps to getting back to normal
Before service can be restored, Mountaineer Gas employees have to go door-to-door to make sure gas lines, appliances and furnaces are safe, Skaff said. If there are issues with residents’ furnaces, hot water tanks or something else, the company has contractors to fix it for them. The contractors have been instructed to fix problems that can be solved easily on the spot on the company’s dime, Skaff said.
“In the extreme cases, there may be people that had their entire furnace flooded if it’s in a low lying area,” Skaff said. “Maybe they have water in their basement that their entire furnace has to be replaced. That’s going to be unfortunate because that may take some time to restore.”
Skaff said the cost of the gas line repairs along with residents’ appliances will be “astronomical.”
Meanwhile people on the West Side have to get through the next several days without gas for heat, hot water or cooking. And local networks, including churches and local businesses, will continue to step up for the neighborhood.
Dinner is being served every night at West Virginia Health Right’s West Side location. The West Virginia Black Pride Foundation is open daily as a warming station and is serving hot food until 9 p.m. daily. And Manna Meal, a feeding ministry that’s currently operating from its food truck after suspending in-person operations at a Charleston church, has served food to residents throughout the week. as well.
On Tuesday night, the SHOP went ahead with their long-standing plan to host a Thanksgiving Dinner for the neighborhood. Director Derek Hudson said that “at least half” of the people who came to the dinner were there because they had no gas and couldn’t cook at home.
And some, he said, just needed a hot meal.
For Cameo Denton and her family, who stopped by to pick up a heater and a bag of groceries on Monday, places like the SHOP make life just a little easier right now.
“I know I can always come here for help,” she said.
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