LOCAL Announcement :: Civil & Human Rights : Elections & Legislation : Housing : Labor & Class

Defenders call for “NO GAS CUT-OFFS!”

Each winter, paying for heat is a major challenge for the area’s low-income residents. Last year between Dec. 21 and March 20, there were 1,713 gas cut-offs, according to Department of Public Utilities spokesman Bill Farrar. The department provides gas, water and a combination of gas and water to approximately 111,000 residential customers.

A representative of the Defenders, a Richmond-based community organization, will be making the request to not cut off gas to any homes this winter at the first City Council meeting of 2006, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9, on the second floor of City Hall, 900 E. Broad St.

Your support is needed! We hope everyone will join us at council that evening,” said Defender Dieyah Rasheed. “This is an important issue for the city’s working poor.”
Don’t cut off anyone’s gas this winter!”

That’s what the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality are asking the City of Richmond.

A representative of the Richmond-based community organization will be making the request at the first City Council meeting of 2006, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9, on the second floor of City Hall, 900 E. Broad St.

“We hope everyone will join us at council that evening,” said Defender Dieyah Rasheed. “This is an important issue for the city’s working poor.”

Each winter, paying for heat is a major challenge for the area’s low-income residents. Last year between Dec. 21 and March 20, there were 1,713 gas cut-offs, according to Department of Public Utilities spokesman Bill Farrar. The department provides gas, water and a combination of gas and water to approximately 111,000 residential customers.

As a result of gas cut-offs, residents often turn to alternative sources of heat, such as fireplaces, wood stoves and kerosene or electric portable heaters. That in turn can lead to fires, injuries and deaths. At present, the Richmond Fire Department doesn’t track how many of its service calls are due to fires caused by these alternative sources of heat. (That will change soon, according to RFD spokesman Lt. Keith Vida, as plans are implemented to install new tracking software.) But the facts now known are sobering. “In Richmond last year, two residents lost their lives in alternative heating source fires,” Lt. Vida told the Defender. “A bunch of other people lost houses or had significant damage to their houses due to alternative heating sources,” he said.

Nationally, alternative heating sources account for 25 percent of home heating fires, but are responsible for 74 percent of deaths and 30 percent of injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association. This year, the problem is expected to be much worse. The price of natural gas has skyrocketed, due to the damage of gas refineries caused by the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Another cause has been the resulting speculation in gas futures on Wall Street.

As a result, the average Richmond gas bill is expected to rise 39 percent, as the city passes the increased prices along to its customers. “The City Administration has tried to withhold an increase in the cost of natural gas for as long as possible,” said Chief Administrative Officer William E. Harrell, “but we must now pass along the higher costs that are being charged to us.”

The expected increase in both natural gas and oil prices has the Richmond Fire Department concerned, according to a recent RFD press release: “[Richmond Fire] Chief [Robert A.] Creecy recognized the direct relationship [the hurricanes] would have with higher heating costs, the increased use of alternative heating sources especially portable heaters, and the likelihood of additional tragedy as more residents than ever would be turning to these heating sources to stay warm.” As a result, the Fire Department has launched a safety awareness campaign. Part of the campaign involves distributing free “fire safety” yardsticks that residents can use to ensure that there are no flammable materials within 36 inches of an alternate fuel source. The department is also providing free smoke alarms and installations to qualifying residents. (See accompanying box for more information.)

Meanwhile, the Utilities Department has taken steps to help its customers pay the expected increase in gas bills. Plus, there are private agencies that offer relief. (See accompanying box.) Even so, the danger of an increasing number of fires remains. Most of the above-mentioned resources were available last winter, but the city still suffered two deaths due to the use of alternative heating sources. This is why the Defenders will be asking City Council to suspend all gas cut-offs through March 20, the last day of winter. Already, the city doesn’t cut off gas to any customer over the age of 65. But that policy does not apply to customers in their early 60s, to single mothers with small children, to households with disabled residents or to others with special needs.

“We’re urging all our friends and supporters to join us at City Council on Jan. 9,” said Defenders organizer Rasheed. “We need everyone there to convince Council there’s a real need for a ban on gas cutoffs this winter.”

For more information, call the Defenders at (804) 644-5834 or e-mail:
DefendersFJE (at) hotmail.com.