MILFORD, PA — The mechanical failure at a UGI transfer station disrupted the fuel that provides heat to over 1,379 homes and businesses from Milford Borough to parts of Westfall Township on Thursday, January 27. By Friday afternoon, 717 customers had been restored and by Saturday morning all but 18 homes and businesses were back online, assuaging the initial fears that it would take several days to restore service.
“Luckily [restoring heat] went a lot better than expected,” newly elected Milford Borough Council president Joe Dooley said.
Dooley was the conduit of information in the borough, worked to set up warming stations and was the point person for communication with UGI. Via email from Mexico, mayor Sean Strub sent status updates throughout the day.
UGI and the respective boroughs sought to contact affected homes and businesses through emails and social media. One public email thread tracked the harrowing journey of one resident as night set in and he used the email platform to plead for assistance. “No help here,” he wrote at 11:30 p.m., nearly 24 hours after the gas was disrupted. “UGI guys never showed up… No heat here. Pipes in danger… We’re freezing.”
The emergency communications were interlaced with emails from Milford Presents, Milford’s business marketing and event group, announcing their community kickoff meeting scheduled for that night via Zoom. Forty minutes prior to the start of the meeting, with half or more of their constituents on emergency footing, president Andriane Wendell sent out a note inquiring if the meeting should be rescheduled.
“Please postpone,” was the simple reply from Beth O’Neil, artistic director of Milford Theater and Milford Hospitality Group (MHG).
“We delivered 50 meals, and we are here all night,” Bill Rosado of MHG said by text on Thursday. “This community is ready to take care of their own and I’m so proud of the Milford Hospitality staff—they were ready to help!”
MHG had been on the front lines of community action most of the day with an all-hands-on-deck approach, creating a warming station at the Tom Quick Inn, providing food and hot drinks and preparing its rooms to host families overnight.
Other businesses and institutions, ranging from Delaware Valley School District to area fire stations and churches, the Dimmick Inn and Milford's Daily Grind opened their spaces, coffee makers and foodstuffs for those in need.
“I’m so impressed and gratified to see the outpouring of support throughout the community, from the municipal side, the business side and the community side,” Dooley said. “I saw on multiple occasions Facebook posts where residents with heat were inviting others over.”
“We still haven’t got sufficient detail of what happened,” he said. “It was a crisis.”
This crisis was made more crucial as Milford’s older housing stock invites vulnerability with poor insulation and unheated basements and crawl spaces. Temperatures in Milford had been below freezing for several days. Frozen pipes can happen in as few as six hours in temperatures of less than 20 degrees.
Once gas service was restored to the station, the restart took approximately 24 hours more. The utility was required to send technicians to relight all gas-powered appliances and furnaces. UGI reported that 80 technicians worked overnight on Thursday to assist in the restart. According to UGI spokesman Joseph Swope, each relight could take up to 30 minutes and UGI was not able to provide a schedule for each home and someone had to be home for UGI to enter.
This catch 22—that no one would be present at a home without heat—was lost on few, and put many residents in a difficult position of protecting their home or protecting their own welfare.
UGI compounded its public relations issues on Friday by sending out a pre-scheduled email announcing gas rate increases that hit customers’ inboxes while many were still without heat. The 9.5 percent increase in distribution costs is needed, the company says, to “recover UGI’s ongoing costs related to system improvements and operations necessary to maintain safe and reliable natural gas service.”
According to Swope, the stations that take the gas from the interstate line and feed it into the local network are routinely inspected and updated. While mechanical failures are rare, he said that service people were present at the station through the weekend to make sure that the repairs that were made would keep the gas flowing.
The mechanical failure at the UGI Milford station that stopped the gas from flowing from the interstate distribution line to the system that feeds local distribution to Milford was first reported early Thursday morning, January 27 at 1 a.m. This started a chain of events.
Local technicians arrived at the station to assess what needed to be fixed. A team of 80 technicians was assembled from the UGI service area, which includes Scranton and Wilkes Barre.
With one team working on the station, other teams proceeded to turn off the gas at individual customers' homes and businesses. According to the UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope speaking on Tuesday, February 1, this is essential for safety and is accomplished at meters outside of the house.
The station came back online on Thursday afternoon.
Working closely with the Pike County Management Agency, a priority list was created that included critical infrastructure points for emergency response. This included the 911 center, borough hall building, fire stations, etc. Additionally, Swope said, there was a list of people who had contacted UGI independently with critical needs, such as the elderly and those with medical devices, which the company made every effort to turn on first.
Then technicians began the long process of restarting individual homes. This involved working street by street, block by block, and entering individual houses to relight all gas appliances--stove, furnace, fireplace, dryers. This was not a fast process as technicians had to ensure that these appliances were working properly. Swope estimated that it took at least 15 to 30 minutes for each relight.
If a resident wasn't home, tags were left on the doors, and technicians, when called, had to return to that street. Sometimes, the technician needed help and would call for assistance from one another.
Swope said that these stations, part of the gas distribution infrastructure, are routinely inspected and upgraded. Located above ground, upkeep and improvements are easily accomplished, as mechanical equipment in those types of stations has a defined lifespan, he said.
On January 27, the same day of the UGI gas interruption in Milford, four lanes of the Forbes Avenue bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh. Ironically, the bridge collapsed hours before President Joseph Biden was scheduled to speak there to discuss the condition of the country’s infrastructure and advocate for the bipartisan infrastructure law that provides funding for badly needed repairs.
Failures of aging and outdated infrastructure, stressed by the intense weather changes, highlight the dangers from gas and water main pipes, bridges, buildings, railways, dams, roads and tunnels that are long past their expiration date for maintenance but vital to the country’s economic vibrancy. The New York Times reported that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a C- in their country-wide infrastructure report card.
“It’s a dire need,” said Greg DeLoreto, a former president of the engineer’s society, in a Times interview. “It’s a terrible report card to take home to your folks.”
Just ask any Milford Borough area resident without heat last week.
[Editor's note: This story was updated on February 1 and 2 to reflect additional information about coordination, communication, and the cause of the gas interruption.]
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