Sierra Vista residents still hot over natural gas outage

Sierra Vista residents still hot over natural gas outage

CREATED Apr 7, 2011

Reporter: Craig Smith
Web Producer: Layla Tang

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - People who live in Cochise County are still mighty hot over some cold nights in February when Southwest Gas shut down their service.

Thousands of customers in Sierra Vista felt the same frigid frustration as Southwest Gas customers in Tucson. They were caught in a very hard freeze when Southwest Gas shutdown large swaths of its system due to a shortage from its supplier. Nearly 14,000 customers in both cities were left in the cold while daytime temperatures hovered in the 30's and overnight temperatures dipped into the teens or even single digits.

Wednesday night, state regulators came to Sierra Vista to learn more about what they might do to prevent another chilly rerun.  Residents were eager to line up to give their two cents.

Robert Hebert told 9 On Your Side he had just come home from open heart surgery when his natural gas was shut off.

"Here I am in bed wrapped in blankets, with a space heater sitting on my chest, trying to cope for several days with no knowledge of when the gas will be turned back on," Hebert recalled.

Residents told the Arizona Corporation Commission even if Southwest Gas really was at the mercy of another supplier that couldn't meet its supply obligations, at least Southwest could have warned customers in advance so they'd have a chance to prepare for trouble.

Gary Lium said he found out the gas was gone when a furnace repair technician told him the furnace at his son's house was fine, but the gas was the problem.  By the time Lium got home, his furnace was out and his water heater was frozen.

"Its like a thief coming during the night breaking into your house. They did the same thing by shutting our gas off," Liam told the regulators.  "It caused damage. It caused life to be at risk."

Commission chair Gary Pierce said the commission can fine Southwest Gas if it decides the company did not do all it should have.

"A lot of these people are hoping for reimbursement for their time, trouble, expense, hotel, repairs can the commission help on that?" asked 9 On Your Side reporter Craig Smith.

"That's an area I'm not sure we have the legal authority to do," Pierce answered. He added that in order to get compensation, customers may have to file a class action lawsuit against El Paso Gas, the company that did not supply Southwest the gas it asked for.

Southwest Gas officials were simply taking notes until Commissioner Paul Newman demanded they step to the microphone.

Southwest Gas attorney Justin Lee Brown told the audience, "I want everyone to know we are here. We are listening. We're communicating with our customers to elicit feedback because we want to make sure in the future we do a better job of meeting your expectations in the event there is an issue in the future. "

Southwest Gas said its rate tariff, approved by the Corporation Commission, protects it from reimbursement claims if its gas supply is interrupted; but it may reimburse for very specific cases where someone ran up an appliance service charge because they called a service tech, not knowing the furnace wasn't working because it didn't have gas.

As for damage from frozen and burst pipes, Southwest Gas said losing gas in that sort of weather is not the only reason the pipes could freeze.

For Tucson victims of the February freeze, and gas outage the Arizona Corporation Commission will hold a similar meeting Thursday.  It will be 6pm at Desert Sky Middle School, 9850 Rankin Loop.