Investigation continues into Aspen-area natural gas outage; community meeting Monday night
Black Hill Energy "hopeful“ to begin re-lights for residential customers by Monday evening
What officials are characterizing as an intentional act on Aspen’s critical infrastructure during the busiest week of the year will leave city residents and businesses without heat or hot water for most of Monday and possibly into Tuesday.
Weather, temperatures and deep snow have slowed Black Hills Energy employees, who must visit each of approximately 3,500 affected natural gas meters and turn them off, Black Hills spokeswoman Carly West said Monday morning.
A community meeting has been set for 6 p.m. Monday to give updates on the outage. In a Pitkin Alert at 1:30 p.m., officials said details on the meeting will be posted later Monday on the pitkincounty.com website site.
“The process of bringing customers back on to the system requires several steps,” Vance Crocker, vice president of operations Black Hills Energy Colorado, said in an update. “We must first make sure all gas meters are off, then purge the system so it’s ready for the reintroduction of the natural gas supply. Finally, our technicians will go door-to-door and relight each customer’s gas appliances.”
Black Hills hopes to have the meters all off by Monday afternoon, then conduct a purge and pressure test on the system before beginning to re-visit each of the 3,500 gas meters and turn them back on, she said.
Crocker said at a news conference Monday afternoon that 1,000 meters had been closed with 2,500 more to go.
“We are hopeful that we can begin re-lights for residential customers by (Monday) evening,” West said Monday morning.
The company’s timeline for re-lighting 3,500 individual pilot lights was updated in the Pitkin Alert and said they will go until 11 p.m. Monday and then will continue Tuesday starting at 5 a.m.
According to the Pitkin Alert, customers may smell a faint natural gas due to the controlled release during the purging of the lines.
“This is normal and expected and is step one in the multi-step process. Beginning this evening until 11 p.m., some customers will see BHE employees at their door to ensure safe delivery of natural gas and to relight appliances,” the alert said. “The relight process will then continue tomorrow beginning at 5 a.m. Do not attempt to relight appliances on your own. Please ensure someone over 18 years of age is present and all animals are secure.”
A snowstorm is forecast for the Aspen area with temperatures expected in the mid-to-low 20s on Tuesday and Wednesday.
She encouraged homeowners to help technicians by using a broom or their hands to uncover gas meters. Do not use hard or sharp objects to clear away snow from the meters.
A Black Hills news release Sunday said vandalism at several of the company’s “assets” caused the disruption on gas service in an area that encompassed only the Aspen area. The fact that a person or persons struck more than one gas transfer site appears to point to an intentional attack on just the city of Aspen during what is traditionally the busiest week of the year.
“It’s almost, to me, an act of terrorism,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who was without heat at her Smuggler Mountain-area home. “It’s trying to destroy a mountain community at the height of the holiday season. This wasn’t a national gas glitch. This was a purposeful act.
“Someone is looking to make a statement of some kind.”
West declined to immediately answer questions about whether what happened was an attack of some kind, exactly how many sites were vandalized and whether any information on whom was responsible was left at the scene.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Monday he wasn’t ready to characterize the gas outage as an “attack” because it needed more investigation. However, if it was vandalism, the consequences — whether intentional or unintentional — is hurting people and businesses already reeling from the effects of COVID-19.
“This is having a major impact on people’s lives,” Peacock said. “If it was an intentional act — that’s unbelievable.”
Law enforcement sources were tight-lipped Monday morning about the vandalism, though Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo promised answers would be forthcoming Monday.
“I am committed to be 100% transparent with the community about what happened and how it happened,” he said. “This is when people need to hear honesty from government.”
Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn declined to comment Monday.
Meanwhile, Black Hills Energy imported between 110 and 120 technicians to Aspen to help alleviate the crisis, West said.
In addition, the company was bringing up an estimated 3,000 space heaters from Denver, though their arrival was weather-dependent, she said. A distribution system for the heaters has not been designed yet, West said.
This is a developing story that will be updated.
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The Bureau of Land Management reported a 20-acre fire along Baxter Pass in far western Garfield County on Monday night.