Local news

Questa gas outage a ‘nightmare’

By Staci Matlock
editor@taosnews.com
Posted 2/8/19

Half of the houses finally had the gas back on Wednesday (Feb. 6), according to Michael Cabral, executive director of the Northern Regional Housing Authority. With any luck, the rest will have gas restored by Friday (Feb. 8).

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Local news

Questa gas outage a ‘nightmare’

Posted

QUESTA, N.M. — Residents in the 20 low-income houses along Casitas de Questa Road have been without natural gas to heat water and their homes for nearly a month after the decades-old underground pipeline began springing leaks.

Half of the houses finally had the gas back on Wednesday (Feb. 6), according to Michael Cabral, executive director of the Northern Regional Housing Authority. With any luck, the rest will have gas restored by Friday (Feb. 8).

Families faced the long gasless stretch due to old infrastructure, a bitterly cold winter that affected repairs, a federal government shutdown and a bureaucratic process unfriendly to quick fixes. The aged natural gas infrastructure is a potential problem for other low-income housing developments around the Northern New Mexico region managed by the housing authority.

Whatever the reasons for the delays in fixing the gas pipeline, all Rebecca Romanski knows is she and her two teenage children had to wrestle for weeks with the lack of hot water for washing dishes and taking showers at their house in the development.

To make matters worse, they and the other families lost water Jan. 31 after the gas crew accidentally cut a waterline they didn’t know was there.

“It’s dehumanizing. Absolutely no reason this could not have been put on an emergency list,” said Romanski, calling herself a pissed-off mom. “Twenty houses. No gas and now no water,” she said after the water went out. “It’s just nightmare after nightmare.”

The village of Questa worked to restore water to the housing within 24 hours although they were not responsible for the waterline within the housing development.

And Romanski’s house was one of the first to have the gas restored.

The housing authority bought electric heaters for families to use to warm their houses and worked with Taos motels to offer free rooms to those who wanted a hot shower and warm bed. But for people like Romanski who don’t have cars, it meant hitching a ride with friends or taking the Blue Bus from Questa to Taos.

Questa businesses stepped up to try and help the families. “They donated food, gave them opportunities to take showers, or invited them to just come in to get out of the frustrating situation,” said Mark Gallegos, Questa’s mayor and chair of the Taos County Commission.

Gallegos said it’s not the first time part of the community has gone without a vital resource.

“We know how it is as a whole community [to be] without water for a month,” said Gallegos, referring to the village losing its water supply from a failed well in December 2016. “Plus we all lost gas for three weeks in 2011. We’ve had some hardship, but we’re resilient.”

He said the problems at Casitas de Questa are a symbol of a larger problem of deferred maintenance on old infrastructure. “It’s a practice sometimes countywide and even statewide not to fix something if it’s not broken,” Gallegos said. “It’s left a lot of our infrastructure by the wayside.”

A system fails

Gallegos thinks the housing authority is trying to address a long backlog of maintenance and upkeep needs at the developments it manages.

Michael Cabral, who took over as executive director of the sprawling 10 county Northern Regional Housing Authority in March, said that’s his intention.

Both the natural gas pipes and the waterlines flow through a single master meter at Casitas de Questa instead of each individual house having its own. Any problems between a meter and a house is the responsibility of the property owner: in this case, the housing authority. If each house had a meter, then the responsibility for most of the gas pipeline would lay with the company providing natural gas.

So when the leaks started, they were on the housing authority’s side of the master meter, Cabral said. “We are responsible for all of the pipeline under the ground from the meter at the road to the houses,” Cabral said.

He worries a situation similar to Questa’s could unfold in one of the Taos housing developments that is also on a single meter.

Cabral said he doesn’t have a utility department and staff to address gas and waterline problems in the way a county or town does.

The irony is New Mexico Gas Company and the housing authority were working on a plan to replace the natural gas pipeline at Casitas de Questa in November. Weather twice prevented the crew from marking the route for a new pipeline into the development, said Tim Korte, spokesman for New Mexico Gas Company. Cabral and Korte said the joint decision was made to wait until spring to install a whole new system and individual meters to each house.

Then in early January, the leak began.

Romanski smelled the gas near her house. It took a couple of calls and a couple of hours to get someone from New Mexico Gas Company out to her house to check for the leak. Since it was near the houses, it was the housing authority’s responsibility.

Cabral contracted with The Plumbers of Taos to try and resolve the leak. Max Stroback, service manager for The Plumbers, said when they fixed the leak and re-pressurized the gas in the pipe, another leak started in the old pipes. Soon, “We were fixing leak after leak after leak,” said Stroback.

Snow and ice made it difficult for equipment above ground to find the leaks underground, Stroback said. “We have thousands of feet of pipeline out there,” he said. After two weeks of trying, he told Cabral it was time to call in help.

Cabral met with New Mexico Gas Company and village officials in late January. New Mexico Gas agreed to install a whole new gas pipeline system in the housing development. By Wednesday (Jan. 30) they had a contracted crew digging the trenches to lay in the pipe.

On Thursday, they hit the water pipeline — a drawback of a 40-year-old development that’s been managed by several different entities and lacks maps of the utilities.

By Friday (Feb. 1), the water was repaired, the ground was thawing a little and the crew felt certain it could have many of the homes back on gas by Feb. 8.

For Cabral, it’s a silver lining to the crisis. “To our benefit, it gets us out of the business,” he said. “We don’t want to be in the natural gas pipeline business.”

For Romanski, she’s just happy to be able to take a hot shower again and wash her dishes.

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