Cold snap bites natural gas users hardest


Hundreds of Socorro residents were without heat Wednesday and Thursday in the coldest spell of winter weather on record.



Jay Santillanes, utilities director for the city, said problems with natural gas delivery forced many to use alternative heat sources or seek shelter in the city’s Youth Center.

“Extremes temperatures are putting a strain on our gas system,” Santillanes said on Thursday. “We experienced some low or no pressure in some areas.”

The outages weren’t localized in any one part of Socorro, he said, but were “spotty, all over town. It had to do with line size and the number of users on the block. It depended on demand in that certain area.”

The first problems were reported in the early hours of Wednesday morning at about 5 a.m.

“The peak demand is between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. It’s when people are getting up, turning up the heat, using hot water,” Santillanes said. “We got a few calls that morning. The calls started to subside during the day, but we were prepared for Wednesday night and went out and purchased space heaters in anticipation.”

The gas department bought up the supply of space heaters in stock at Walmart, Ace hardware and other local stores. The electric heaters were loaned to city gas customers who had no alternative way to keep warm, such as wood burning or pellet stoves, on a first come, first served basis.

Santillanes said the city gets its natural gas by tapping into a line that goes all the way from Texas to California.

“Belen is where we hook up to the El Paso line,” he said. “It’s a 4-inch line that’s 38 miles long.”

Santillanes said the El Paso line “went to a critical position” on Wednesday, with not enough gas being put into the system compared to the sudden demand.

“They do have enough gas for us — we’re a small community,” he said. “The main part of our problem was the demand we had locally. You can only draw so much out of a 4-inch line.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Santillanes said the pressure was building back up and gas department workers were making house calls to relight pilots that had gone out without enough gas to stay lit. However, the city was bracing for temperatures Thursday night that were expected to be not as cold as the record low experienced on Wednesday night, but still bitterly cold.

On Thursday, a notice went up on the city’s website and a flyer was passed out at grocery stores asking residents to keep their thermostats set between 60 to 62 degrees Fahrenheit, “to assist in maintaining gas pressures throughout the city.”

Although Thursday night was expected to be a critical time, Santillanes said he anticipated the worst of the crisis would be over by Friday, with warmer weather causing a lessening in demand.

“By Saturday, we expect temperatures to reach the 40s,” he said.

Although they were reported elsewhere, Santillanes said the city of Socorro did not declare an official state of emergency.

“There are certain criteria that need to be met, and we haven’t considered them to have been met,” he said. “If there was a state of emergency, it wasn’t called by us, and as far as we know, we haven’t had one.”

With that said, however, Santillanes said the city officials were extremely concerned about the well-being of the residents and were doing everything they could.

“We’ve had people working in shifts around the clock,” he said.

Overtime costs were not expected to be too high, however,

“We’ve had a couple of people out at a time, rotating. It shouldn’t be too big a deal,” he said. “Really, we’re more concerned about doing everything we can for the residents.”

Some residents had heat but not hot water, and some were without heat altogether. Reports of burst pipes were widespread, but exact numbers were not available at El Defensor Chieftain’s press time on Friday. The toll on people and plumbing inflicted by the cold weather is expected to be discussed at the city council meeting on Monday evening, Feb. 7, when preliminary damage estimates should be available.

“A lot of motels have individual heaters in the rooms that run on electricity, so we haven’t heard that motels and hotels are having too much trouble,” Santillanes said. “They’re staying warm enough. Some may be having water troubles, though.”

Several restaurants, including K-Bob’s and Diamondback, were closed on Thursday because of water problems, and others were serving only items that could be made without using their gas-fired burners and grills.

With warmer temperatures forecast for the weekend, Santillanes said the problems should be over by Saturday, but any city gas customers who are still without heat and hot water can call for assistance from the city through the police department, by dialing 911 for emergencies or calling police dispatch at 575-835-1883.

“Everybody’s doing a great job, trying to accommodate the need and respond to the calls,” Santillanes said. “People should be able to relight their heaters, but if they’re not comfortable doing that themselves, they can call the city and we’ll come out and relight their pilots for them.”

Santillanes said the problems should have a minimal effect on the rate or price of gas.

“Our prices this winter have so far been pretty low,” he said. “With the high demand, we might get a bit of a spike, but we don’t anticipate a big spike.”

Santillanes said conditions like this haven’t been experienced by the city since the 1970s.

“In the early ’70s, there were some problems,” he said. “There were system problems at that time also, inadequate line sizes and some leaks. Since then, in the ’90s, the city replaced all the gas lines.”


Contact Suzanne Barteau