THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Without gas service, some make do, others bail out

Liability issue still not settled

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / April 30, 2008

Four days of washing her hair with water she warmed in the microwave was enough for Emily Baier.

She lives on the 31st floor of a high-rise apartment complex in Boston's Financial District with splendid views of Beacon Hill, easy access to some of the city's finest restaurants, and, for nearly a week, no natural gas service. So last night she planned to bunk with her parents in Natick.

"When we wake up in the morning, you never know when you turn on the shower whether you're going to have hot water or not," said the 29-year-old public relations specialist. "I've lived in cities all my life. I've never had this, four days without hot water, and it not being because of some natural disaster or something like that."

Hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses in the Financial District coped with a fourth day without natural gas service yesterday, the impact of a weekend water main break that broke a gas line and sent torrents of water streaming into National Grid's gas distribution network.

The slow process of extracting pockets of water from the gas system and restoring gas service continued, with utility trucks still stationed around the Financial District. National Grid said it had sucked 60,000 gallons of water - roughly equivalent to the volume of an Olympic-size swimming pool - from 13 miles of natural gas pipes in the area, which covers 30 streets.

Yesterday afternoon, the utility said service had been restored to 85 of the 410 customers whose gas had been shut off, with more being added continually. Most of the remaining customers were in the Financial District, where the initial rupture occurred on Devonshire Street early Saturday morning. The utility said some customers may not see their service restored until tomorrow.

Officials with the city and National Grid sought yesterday to assure affected residents that they were on top of the situation. At Mayor Thomas M. Menino's urging, National Grid said it would set up an emergency customer service center on the third floor of City Hall, which will be open beginning at 8 a.m. today

Disagreements continued over who is financially liable for consumers' losses and other damages. The utility said customers could file financial claims with it, but it stopped short of accepting liability for costs incurred as a result of the gas service interruption.

"As for the claims issue, we will work with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission to sort out who is responsible," William Akley, National Grid senior vice president of gas distribution operations, said in a statement yesterday. "We have an obligation to help our customers who have been impacted by this incident, and right now our focus is on getting them the information and assistance they need to so that they can submit their claims."

Jim Hunt, chief of environment and energy for the city, said that it was too early to say who would be ultimately responsible and that the focus for now should be on restoring service.

"Today we don't know the cause of that, and it will be a little time before we do know the cause," Hunt said.

Menino, who said yesterday he was satisfied with the pace of the service restoration, asked National Grid and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission to give the city a joint assessment of how a 12-inch water main break Saturday led to a loss of natural gas service.

"I think they're doing the best job they can," he said.

While the bulk of the water has been removed, the complicated process of removing the remaining pockets of water could stretch into winter, meaning that customers will see periodic disruptions of gas service for the rest of the year.

Akley said any continuing interruptions once service is restored would be "small and isolated," and insisted the utility would be able to respond quickly to individual customer problems.

The official number of affected customers, 410, does not approach the scope of the disruption caused to the Financial District. A multiunit residence, such as the 400-unit Devonshire high-rise, counts as a single customer for National Grid. The luxury building appeared to be the largest affected complex. Managers at the complex and an official with its developer, the New York-based Ruben Companies, did not return calls seeking comment.

Baier said the complex offered complimentary breakfast to frustrated tenants yesterday morning, but that wasn't enough to get her to stick around for what would probably be another frustrating night. She said she has heard from other tenants who, like her, are staying with friends or relatives.

"There's a lot of people in the building with kids, and I don't know how they're coping without hot water," she said. "I didn't panic in the beginning, because I kept thinking: It will be fine tomorrow. It will be fine tomorrow. Then I just had to make an executive decision that I'm going to go out to my parents' house this evening, and do laundry and take a hot shower."

At least some restaurants in the Financial District, which had closed their doors in the wake of the gas service outage because they could not serve hot food, began to improvise yesterday.

Tim Collins, owner of MKT Lounge on Water Street, leased electrical kitchen equipment and installed two new electric water heats so he could open up last night to host a quarterly reception for about 150 Boston Magazine subscribers and advertisers.

He said he fielded more than a dozen calls from Boston Magazine, assuring the publication he could still serve beef skewers, potato pancakes, and tiramisu as planned. He says the lounge and the companion restaurant, Central 37, will be open for lunch and dinner today, with or without gas.

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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