Gas company says it will conduct survey

pseligson@newsobserver.comJanuary 13, 2014 

A community meeting last week produced no promise of natural gas for East Smithfield, but residents said they left the meeting encouraged by the dialogue.

East Smithfield residents have long maintained that North Carolina Natural Gas promised them service when the company came to Smithfield in 1988. Last week, about 40 of those residents aired their grievance with Piedmont Natural Gas, which now owns the Smithfield gas lines.

In a meeting at Shiloh Christian Church, Greg Epting, regional sales manager, said his company could not speak to what North Carolina Natural Gas promised East Smithfield 25 years ago. “None of this group was around,” he said of himself and four coworkers who attended the meeting. “We really can’t speak to what was said and what was not said.”

But a review of the franchise agreement, which was signed in 1988 and expired in 2008, shows no promises to East Smithfield, Epting said. “There was not anything in the franchise that indicated that that commitment had been made in 1988,” he said, adding that it was time to look forward instead of back.

Epting, whose frankness appeared to please East Smithfield residents, said it was unlikely that Piedmont Natural Gas could profitably serve their community. Typically, only 60 to 70 percent of homes in a community sign up for gas when it’s offered, and that’s not enough to justify the expense of running lines, he said.

But Epting added that he’s a salesman who wants to increase his company’s business, and he promised to survey East Smithfield residents about their interest in natural gas.

“If it doesn’t work this time, it will be because there wasn’t enough interest in the community,” he said. “It won’t be because we weren’t willing to look at it.”

Epting said the company’s plan is to hang information packets on peoples’ front doors. Those packets will contain postcards that residents can mail to the company if they’re interested in natural gas. The company won’t make any decision until it receives the results of the survey, he said.

Dennis Williams, an East Smithfield resident who has lobbied for natural gas, asked Epting if the community could have someone accompany the company employee who hangs the packets on doors. Epting said yes; Williams has said before that similar surveys in the past were not done in good faith and were confusing to residents.

Likely starting in February, Piedmont Natural Gas plans to survey the area that stretches roughly from Massey Street to Brogden Road. Based on its experience in other communities, the company expects roughly 130 of 200 households to say yes; that would not be enough to justify the expense of running lines, Epting said.

With that number, he figured the company would need another $100,000 from somewhere to make the math work. That’s where the Town of Smithfield could help; the town has said it will search for grant dollars to help bring natural gas to East Smithfield.

Epting complimented those gathered for coming together to organize and be at the meeting. “This is something that’s going to take a unified group effort to have any possibility of working,” he said. “That’s the way these things are the most successful.”

Epting and his staff will meet with Tony Nixon, chairman of the East Smithfield Improvement Organization, to figure out the details on where to survey and who will come along on those surveys.

Afterward, Nixon said he felt the meeting went well. He said lack of communication has been a problem in the past, and the meeting helped repair that.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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