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Thousands still without gas service

August 10, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Crews with Mountaineer Gas Co. worked until midnight Wednesday attempting to restore natural gas service to about 3,377 customers in the Martinsburg area.

A distribution system malfunction Tuesday forced some residents to take cold showers and restaurants to close.

As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, at least 300 customers had regained natural gas service, said Thomas Westfall, operations manager for the Charleston, W.Va., company.

Westfall expected service to be restored to most of the remaining customers by today. Critical service providers like hospitals and nursing homes were expected to be the first to be put back online, followed by businesses and residential customers, Westfall said.

The company dispatched 58 employees to manually turn off meters before beginning to individually return them to service about 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, Westfall said.

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The loss of service at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday was prompted by an undetermined problem at a regulator station designed to reduce the pressure of gas pumped from a Columbia Gas transmission pipeline in Frederick County, Va., to Martinsburg, Westfall said.

Company employees were working on the station when the malfunction occurred, Westfall said. He did not know exactly what went wrong.

Regulator stations reduce the pressure of natural gas to a safe level and allow it to be distributed to customers.

With more than 5,000 customers, Martinsburg is the company's fastest growing market based on percentage calculations, Westfall said.

Some restaurant owners in Martinsburg lamented the loss of business, and many were forced to limit their menus or close.

"For all the businesses downtown, any loss of business is a big blow," said Hakim Hashimi, owner of Red Wolf Bar-N-Grille off South Queen Street. "Especially when your treading the margin."

On Wednesday, Hashimi was able to offer patrons only "cold" items from a limited menu.

Outback Steakhouse off Foxcroft Avenue was closed.

"We got everyone at home on standby right now," restaurant proprietor Duane Casey said.

"I know the gas company is doing everything they can," said Casey, who said he had expected service to be restored Tuesday evening.

Other restaurant owners also said they were given earlier restoration times.

Bruce Monforte, who owns the Historic Market House Grill restaurant downtown, said the disruption actually benefitted his restaurant because the kitchen appliances are fueled with propane.

"We do a tremendous lunch business anyway. This was icing on the cake," Monforte said.

Though restaurants experienced the heaviest financial loss with the disruption, Mark Spickler, Martinsburg's finance director, said city coffers are indirectly affected by a dip in business and occupation tax revenue that is collected.

"I don't like to see businesses ever get shut down," Spickler said. "The longer it goes on ... it's not good for anyone."

Teresa McCabe, Vice President of Marketing and Development for West Virginia University Hospitals East, said the loss of natural gas service did not affect patient care at City Hospital. She said that the cafeteria menu for visitors was altered by the disruption and one boiler for the hospital had to be switched to fuel oil.

Service had not been restored at the hospital as of 7 p.m. Wednesday, she said. Westfall said the company had tariffs in place that protected it from legal claims of lost revenue because of the outage, which he described as a "regretful situation."

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