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Gas outage response too little, too late

Southern Oregon’s natural gas utility has some explaining to do after three days of bungling its response to a pressure drop that left nearly 4,800 Ashland customers without service.

On Tuesday, the first day of the outage, the company didn’t issue a news release until 1:43 p.m., although customers noticed problems as early as 7:30 a.m.

Avista notified the city of Ashland that its customers had been affected, and the city issued an update, but customers who had signed up with Avista for text-message notifications or downloaded the company’s outage app said they received no alerts on Tuesday.

Even after a news release was issued, calls to the company’s 24/7 media line with questions went without a response. The initial release said the outage affected “approximately 2,300 customers,” but that estimate grew to 4,500 by the end of the day, and on Wednesday it stood at nearly 4,800.

The initial release said the outage “appears to have resulted from a decrease in pressure in the natural gas pipeline,” and that “the issue was quickly identified.” The “issue” — no gas service to thousands of customers — was hardly a mystery. The cause was apparently more elusive. The drop in pressure, the company said on Wednesday, occurred “during routine valve maintenance.” That still doesn’t explain why it occurred, but the precise cause is less important than what the company did to inform its customers.

The answer to that appears to be, precious little.

Avista said on Wednesday that its crews received a low-pressure alert early Tuesday morning. So why did it take until nearly 2 in the afternoon to make an announcement?

Avista officials should feel fortunate that this outage occurred just as the weather turned warmer. As one caller to the Mail Tribune, concerned about her elderly mother, said, “What if this had happened in December?”

What, indeed?

We understand the special challenges posed by natural gas because of its potential for explosion and fire, and we have no argument with the need for crews to be methodical about shutting off supply lines before restoring service and relighting pilot lights. But communication is vital when an essential public utility suffers a failure of this magnitude.

This should serve as a learning opportunity for Avista. The next time something like this happens, the company should tell its customers much sooner and in more detail what is happening and when they can expect action.