It could take weeks to completely fix a pipeline outage that has left more than 20,000 New South Wales residents without natural gas during an unseasonal cold snap, with recent flooding believed to have caused the outage as well as hampering its repair.
Residents in the central-west towns of Bathurst, Lithgow and Wallerawang woke up on Thursday to find their homes without natural gas, a day after snow fell in the region and a temperature of 1C was recorded in Lithgow. The towns of Portland and Oberon are also affected.
The outage was caused by an incident on the natural gas pipeline between Young and Lithgow on Wednesday night and was expected to last several weeks for some residents, the pipeline owner and operator, APA Group, said.
Gas supplier Jemena’s external affairs manager, Michael Pintabona, said the leak occurred beneath the Macquarie River at White Rock, south of Bathurst.
The area is affected by flooding and the exact cause of the leak is not known. However, a media statement from APA said recent flooding was likely to be a factor.
While supply has been reinstated at the Bathurst end of the pipeline, the relight process is labour intensive. Each household or business must be restored individually, with Jemena staff required to attend properties to ensure the gas connection is safe.
According to Pintabona, customers in Raglan, Kelso and White Rock may be reconnected on Friday, with other parts of Bathurst to follow.
Additional staff have been brought in from Sydney to bolster the local crew of 15. The NSW State Emergency Service and Rural Fire Service are also expected to assist, along with APA staff.
Meanwhile, the communities on the eastern end of the pipeline could be without gas for “quite some time”, Pintabona said.
APA needs to locate and isolate the puncture before the pipes can be purged and gas reinstated to Lithgow, Wallerawang and Oberon, he said. Due to the flooded nature of the area where the leak occurred, APA has not yet been able to fully access the site.
Asked whether such gas outages could happen elsewhere, given the widespread flooding across the eastern states, Pintabona said “the gas pipelines are built to withstand floods”.
According to Jemena’s website, the company will also be responding to rising water levels at Forbes by isolating gas services in premises advised by the SES to evacuate.
In Lithgow, the gas disruption is yet another blow to a community that has been affected by bushfires, Covid restrictions and flood events in the past three years.
A number of food outlets on Lithgow’s Main Street were closed on Friday.
Daniel Amador, the head chef at The 7 Valleys pub, set up a barbecue on the street.
“We’ve had to improvise,” he said. “We came up with a limited menu – it’s not ideal – but it’s what it is for the moment. We don’t know the timeframe.
“We also have rooms here, so we had to advise all our guests we don’t have hot water and heating. I’m using the kettle for hot water.”
Lithgow resident Dale Howell, 89, relies on natural gas for heating, hot water and cooking.
She realised there was an issue early on Thursday morning when her gas heater and stove wouldn’t light. Her daughter Sue Warner managed to find Howell’s old electric heater, which had been loaned to a granddaughter.
“I’ve had to repossess it,” said Howell, who suffers from a heart condition.
Warner, who works for Meals on Wheels, said her organisation was having to improvise.
“A lot of our menu includes things like casseroles, which we just cannot make without gas,” she said.
More than 100 of the town’s residents are dependent on the service, which provides more than just food. Some of the elderly residents are isolated and may not understand why their gas appliances aren’t working.
“None of them have Facebook,” Warner said. “We are feeding vulnerable people. We sent messages with our volunteers yesterday to tell our clients what’s going on.”
The Lithgow city council has called for more information from the companies responsible for supplying natural gas to the region.
“We have over 4,700 properties in Lithgow alone which are relying on information from both APA and Jemena to understand the significance of this impact,” the council’s infrastructure services director, Jonathon Edgecombe, said.
“We’re not getting the level of information we need for people to make decisions as to their wellbeing and what they need to do to assist any other vulnerable members of the community.”
Asked about compensation for Jemena customers, Pintabona said the company was focused on fixing the fault first.
In the meantime, Warner, her mother and thousands of others in the region will be making do with boiling water in electric kettles and sponge baths.
“If we all show kindness to our neighbours, we can get through it,” Warner said. “You have to think of the people who have been through the floods and have got nothing but the clothes on their back. We have to help one another. It’s all we can do.”
• Sarah Michell is a freelance writer based in Lithgow