The Christmas turkey was served a few days late in the Merrimack Valley this season. Exorbitant gas bills, some of which exceeded $800, started showing up stuffed into mailboxes the week after the holiday.
Columbia Gas, which had been holding back on billing since the Sept. 13 gas disaster, now expects customers to catch up for the gas they used. And people who heard little from the utility about its plans for billing until now are choking on the numbers.
“I didn’t receive anything since the explosions. Then I got today’s bill,” Paul Craney of North Andover told reporter Zoe Mathews. His present from Columbia Gas — a bill for $820.92. It’s due Jan. 22.
That’s a tall order for a utility bill any time of the year. It’s especially hard to swallow come January, when people are recovering from the holidays. And it’s even more appalling coming from Columbia Gas in light of its disaster that damaged dozens of houses, displaced families, shuttered businesses and killed a teenager, followed by a belabored recovery that left thousands of homes without heat and hot water for months.
It took nearly three months of ripping up streets, replacing gas lines, and installing new appliances before most people in the region had service again — and still not everyone does.
It took the company just a couple of weeks after its Dec. 16 deadline for restoring service to resume sending bills. In retrospect, the state Department of Public Utilities should have intervened, forcing the utility to make a more detailed, public explanation of its plans before that happened.
As it is, Columbia Gas mentioned billing among the “frequently asked questions” portion of a newsletter to customers dated Christmas Eve.
The charges are especially distasteful as Columbia Gas haggles with local officials in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover over exactly how extensive it will be in resurfacing the roads it tore apart to repair the gas infrastructure.
To be sure, Craney, who lives near the town common in North Andover, was among the lucky ones, relatively speaking. He lost gas service for a few days. His big bill purportedly doesn’t charge for September but catches up on the gas he used every month since.
And, in fairness, Columbia Gas explains its approach as most forgiving to those whose service was interrupted the longest after the Sept. 13 gas disaster.
Those customers who needed appliances repaired or replaced aren’t being charged for gas through December. Those who didn’t need repairs or replacement, but who were without gas into October, won’t pay for service for September or October.
In other words, bulging bills are being delivered to the people who were least affected by the disaster. Columbia Gas sent its catch-up bills to about 3,000 customers falling into that category, according to Scott Ferson, its spokesman.
Also, it should be noted that state law prevents any utility from shutting off the heat during the winter.
Of course, the law doesn’t stop the gas company from trying to squeeze payment out of its customers, but Columbia Gas says it will arrange plans for those who can’t cover these bills all at once.
Still, this sour holiday surprise could’ve been handled much differently. These bills stand as yet another example of Columbia Gas making a tortuous process that much harder than it needed to be by its lack of communication.
The company could’ve been a lot more clear with customers about what to expect and what their options are. Even better, it could’ve waited until after well after the holidays before settling up.