Piedmont Natural Gas to meet with East Smithfield residents

pseligson@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2014 

East Smithfield residents have the chance Wednesday to meet with representatives of Piedmont Natural Gas.

For months now, residents have complained that the gas company has broken its promise to bring natural gas to their homes.

The meeting will get started at 6 p.m. Jan. 8 at Mitchener Memorial Baptist Church, 911 Blount St. The following from Piedmont Natural Gas will attend: Lee Williams, residential energy specialist; Dale Norville, sales supervisor; Greg Epting, regional sales manager; Claire Taylor, managing director for residential and commercial sales; and Jazz Tunnell, senior government-relations manager.

Back in August, East Smithfield resident Dennis Williams told the Town Council the company had not met its decades-old obligation to bring natural gas to his community. Instead, residents have had to use more costly alternatives, such as propane, he said.

According to Williams and other East Smithfield residents, Piedmont Natural Gas pledged in 1988 to bring natural gas to all of Smithfield. But that pledge – a formal agreement between the town and gas company – has since expired.

Over the years, before and after the agreement expired, residents say, their pleas for natural gas have fallen on deaf ears.

Since Williams approached the council last summer, the two sides have been moving toward a face-to-face meeting.

In November, Town Manager Paul Sabiston said Piedmont Natural Gas had calculated the cost of extending gas lines to East Smithfield. That number – about $100,000 – assumes the best-case scenario, in which most residents would buy gas if it were available. For its part, the town is exploring ways to pay that cost, perhaps through a grant.

Tony Nixon is chairman of the East Smithfield Improvement Organization. He hopes the meeting will shed light on what it will take to get natural gas to his neighborhood.

“Specifically, we want to know what are the requirements of Piedmont Natural Gas, and then specifically we want to know what the town’s obligation is in terms of meeting those needs for the citizens,” he said.

Nixon said he hopes to accomplish an “exchange of ideas” among the three parties – citizens who want natural gas, the gas company and the town. “We know that there was some agreements and things that were discussed in the past,” he said. “And there are certain areas of the East Smithfield area that have natural gas, and now we’re just looking to possibly get that extended to other citizens.”

Sabiston said he sees the town’s role as facilitator. “I look at our role as just trying to get the parties together, see what’s possible and try and coordinate as well as we can, help where we can,” he said. “But ultimately, we are not going to provide it. We can’t provide it; it’s not what we do. So at the meeting, I want to give Piedmont Gas a chance to let the residents know what they can do, what they’re willing to do, what’s feasible and what’s not.”

When asked for comment, Piedmont Natural Gas required the Herald to submit its questions via email. Epting, the regional sales manager, responded. “We have reviewed our franchise agreement with the city, and there is not an obligation in the agreement to serve all homes and streets,” he said.

At today’s meeting, Epting said, company representatives plan to talk about “natural gas line extension procedures, including specific details on converting to natural gas appliances and the process used to make the financial decision on each project.”

Later, “our plans are to survey the neighborhood to determine the interest in putting natural gas appliances into the homes,” he added.

Ultimately, if the groups don’t find a solution, East Smithfield residents could ask the town to go to the state Utilities Commission on their behalf. It is unclear what that would involve, how much it would cost and what kind of case Smithfield would have against Piedmont Natural Gas.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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