Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Largest natural gas outage in Avista’s history cuts off heat to much of the Palouse; some customers could be without power 3-5 days

MOSCOW, Idaho – Numerous schools and businesses were closed Thursday after a major natural gas pipeline was ruptured Wednesday, severing the source of heat for much of the Palouse.

Jared Webley, Avista’s senior communications manager, said the broken pipe has affected 36,750 customers.

The pipeline, owned by Williams Pipeline and operated by Avista, was repaired Thursday, but service may not be restored for three to five days, Avista estimated.

Avista contracts with Williams Pipeline for use bewteen Pullman and Colfax. The outage is the largest in Avista’s history and has affected service for Pullman, Clarkston, Palouse, Uniontown, Colton and Albion in Washington, and Moscow, Lewiston, Troy, Bovill, Deary and Genesee in Idaho.

The Washington State Patrol reported the leak occurred Wednesday when the gas line was struck along U.S. Highway 195 between Colfax and Pullman. The highway was closed temporarily while crews assessed the danger. The rupture was caused by a landowner pulling a plow through a field as he was installing a drainage pipe, the Lewiston Tribune reported.

Williams provided a short written statement, but otherwise refused to answer questions.

In an email, Williams said a “third party” broke the pipeline Wednesday afternoon near Pullman.

“There were no injuries, no fire, or explosion associated with the incident,” Williams wrote in its statement. “An assessment and repair team was quickly mobilized to repair the damage to the pipeline, and as of today, the repairs have been successfully completed.”

Webley said technicians from Avista and other utility companies went door-to-door in the outage area Thursday, shutting off gas meters. Avista expects to begin relighting natural gas appliances Friday.

In the meantime, many are still without heat.

The weather is forecasted for lows in the 30s and highs in the 40s the next few days. Cold, but above freezing.

Whitman County Emergency Management Director Bill Tensfeld said he has been in touch with the Red Cross, but most of the places they’d normally use as shelters are heated with natural gas.

“We don’t really have a go-to place, so we’re just encouraging people to layer up and watch out for one another,” Tensfeld said.

He doesn’t expect this to be a life-threatening event.

“It’s more of an inconvenience than anything,” Tensfeld said. “If they layer up, they should be fine.”

The incident doesn’t affect everyone. Some homes and businesses have electric heat or wood stoves.

There was a run on space heaters and electric blankets in the region, with hardware stores in Moscow running out.

“It’s different than any other disaster I’ve been through,” Tensfeld said. “This time, it’s such a vast area, we just don’t have a place to shelter them.”

Tensfeld encourages people to be smart. Don’t bring a barbecue indoors, which could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. If you use a space heater, plug it directly into the wall socket and don’t use an extension cord.

Mark Hurd, Nez Perce County’s emergency management coordinator, said the primary focus Thursday was distributing space heaters, especially to folks who are unable to drive to town to pick one up. He said the priority was getting heaters to vulnerable populations, such as folks in assisted living facilities.

Longtime Troy, Idaho, resident Shirley Stephens, 76, lost heat and hot water in her home Wednesday night. She said it’s cold, but she’s hanging in there.

“I’ve lived in Idaho my whole life, and a little cold doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I just add another blanket around me.”

Stephens said if it gets too cold in her home, she will go stay with her sister who has a wood stove.

The community center in Palouse, Washington, has electric heating and was open as a warming center during the day, though only one volunteer was there at noon.

Stores were still open on the town’s main street, including Swale, a boutique and gift shop. Owner Jessie Twigg-Harris said she was cold at home, so she might as well be cold at work. She stood cheerfully behind the register with an electric space heater.

The Lewiston, Pullman and Moscow school districts are among those that canceled classes Thursday.

The University of Idaho announced that classes would be canceled Thursday and Friday, and non-essential offices were closed.

The campus was quiet.

Sodiq Yusuf, a natural resources graduate student, returned to his lab on campus for a few minutes to check on an experiment he is running on renewable materials and wood waste. He said it’s important to check every day.

“I don’t want to ruin my hard work,” Yusuf said.

On a lawn outside student housing, a group of friends was enjoying the time off by playing Spikeball, a game with some similarities to volleyball, but that involves bouncing a ball off a small horizontal net.

Silas Byrne, a freshman who lives in the dorms, said his room was a little cold, but he has a space heater.

“It’s not too bad during the day,” he said.

Gabe Brandt, a senior who lives off campus, said his apartment has electric heat.

Washington State University in Pullman remained open, as most of the campus switched to an alternative heat source. The Compton Union Building remained open overnight for the community as a warming center.

Moscow city offices were closed Thursday, will remain closed in observance of Veteran’s Day and will reopen Monday, a note on the door said.

Most stores and cafés stayed open, but many restaurants that use gas for cooking were closed.

Ivan Saueracker, a cook at an Italian restaurant downtown, shoved a log into a blazing brick oven then slid a vegetable-strewn pizza in after it. The old-fashioned oven allowed Maialina Pizzeria Napoletana to stay open with a reduced menu.

Because the oven is so efficient, it doesn’t warm the room much, owner George Skandalos said, but the combination of other kitchen appliances does. He also set up four space heaters.

The restaurant uses gas for its grill and range, so it had to scratch non-pizza dishes from its menu. Skandalos still expects it to be busy, both with other restaurants closed and with people less able to cook at home.

A friend was able to supply an electric water heater, which was installed Thursday morning. Not having hot water is another reason some restaurants had to close.

“With the cost of the water heater, even if we break even, it’s worth it to stay open to keep paying our staff,” Skandalos said.

Webley, the Avista spokesman, said everyone’s gas needs to be shut off before Williams can re-pressurize and restart the system, Webley said. Customers do not need to be home when technicians shut off their meters, but they are encouraged to leave their gates open and remove anything obstructing meters.

Webley stressed that only Avista technicians can turn a customer’s gas back on.

“Do not turn it back on yourself and do not try to light anything yourself; it is only a credentialed Avista serviceman that is allowed to turn it back on,” Webley said. “Nobody should be paying anybody to do that work.”

While customers don’t need to be home when their meters are shut off, they do need to be home for the relighting process.

Avista’s personnel will identify themselves to homeowners before entering a residence. If a customer isn’t home when a service worker knocks, Avista will leave a card at the door.

Williams is a publicly traded, multi-billion dollar natural gas company headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The company built the first stretch of its Northwest Pipeline 60 years ago. Today, the Northwest Pipeline is 3,900 miles long and carries gas across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, southwestern Wyoming, Utah and eastern Colorado.

S-R staffers Jonathan Brunt, Ellen Dennis, Colin Tiernan and Amanda Sullender contributed reporting.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.