A pub with no gas: Lithgow residents rely on each other after flooding ruptures gas pipeline

4 months ago 22

Residents of Lithgow are using kettles to prepare water for bathing and restaurants with bottled gas are cooking warm meals for locals, as the regional New South Wales town waits up to a month for a broken gas pipeline to be repaired.

Locals in towns including Lithgow, Bathurst, Wallerawang and Oberon woke up on Thursday to find their homes had been cut off from natural gas – the result of a leak in the pipeline between Young and Lithgow. More than 20,000 people are affected.

The outage came amid a spell of cold weather that had seen snowfall in the centre-west of the state. Flooding is believed to have ruptured a section of pipeline under the Macquarie River with flood waters prolonging repair efforts.

In the centre of Lithgow, The 7 Valleys pub has been without a functioning kitchen, hot water and heating since Thursday. The publican, Matt Andrews, says there has been a “nose dive in business”.

“It’s completely shut down our kitchen, we rely on gas for everything,” he says. The pub is now offering an “out of gas” menu cooked on barbecues connected to bottled gas.

The accommodation above the pub has also been affected. Without hot water or heating, guests have been cancelling bookings. Andrews lives onsite in one of the rooms and says he had been taking cold showers since last week. “It’s apparently good for you, but the first one was absolutely horrendous.”

Andrews is now concerned about having to reduce staff hours due to the drop in customers. He is worried they’ll seek employment elsewhere given recent difficulties attracting hospitality workers. “To be hit by this is a real sucker punch,” he says.

Returning gas service to the region requires the pipeline’s operator, APA Group, to locate the leak and purge the pipeline of air and gas, before returning supply. Gas supplier Jemena must also carry out make-safe checks at each individual customer’s property – a lengthy process that means residents are facing up to a month without gas.

Supply has already returned to about half of Bathurst with the rest of the town expected to be restored by the end of the week, according to a Jemena spokesperson, who explained Bathurst’s location on the pipeline allowed gas supply to be resumed earlier as a valve downstream could be shut down.

Window with 'limited menu no gas' written in white
The 7 Valleys pub in Lithgow has seen business ‘nose dive’ since the gas supply was cut by flooding. Photograph: Sarah Michell/The Guardian

Make-safe checks are not yet complete across Lithgow, Oberon and Wallerawang. A temporary pipe is set to be in service in two weeks but regular supply is only expected to return in four weeks. While gas tankers have been trucked in for critical customers such as hospitals, households that relied on natural gas at their homes and businesses are still without heating, stoves and hot water.

The owner and chef at Lithgow’s Secret Creek cafe and restaurant, Tenille Evans, considers herself lucky, as her business’s property runs on bottled gas. On Friday, she decided to invite affected residents who couldn’t cook in their homes to bring takeaway containers to her restaurant and fill them up for dinner for free.

“It wasn’t that people couldn’t feed themselves, but it’s hard enough figuring out how you’re going to bathe your children, so I thought it would be nice to have one less thing to worry about,” Evans says.

a row of portable showers and a forklift placing another
Workers installing temporary shower facilities, provided by Lithgow city council.

She says 25 families fed themselves with her vegan chilli con carne, cornbread and moroccan rice that night, and that she is now considering providing free meals again this week.

“It seemed like the community was just left to do your best with what you have,” she says. “It’s one of those things where we’ve been told this issue is too big for us to worry about, that the companies and council will take care of it, but none of them are saying anything.”

Evans says the pipeline broke “at the worst possible time” because of the recent cold snap – and she is worried some residents in Lithgow are now using unsafe older heaters to keep warm.

Locals are helping each other, however, reminiscent of the community’s resilience after the black summer bushfires.

“I was speaking to someone who just showered at her hairdresser’s nan’s house, who had hot water. They’d told her she was welcome to come over,” Evans says. “Everyone has been doing what they can to help.”

a man and a woman watch their toddler daughter playing in the scattered snow
The recent cold snap in the central west of NSW brought Orange locals Jake and Sherlin Galicia and their daughter Sofia to the Pinnacle Reserve. Photograph: Murray Mccloskey/AAP

The vice-president of the Lithgow district chamber of commerce, Steve Ring, says local businesses are being surveyed about the financial impact of the gas outage and the group would be seeking financial compensation.

“There are questions around putting the pipeline through a floodplain. What contingency plans did they have in place?”

Ring says people in town are adapting to the outage with many “boiling kettles so they can wash at home” while others are using temporary showers the council set up at the showground.

Asked about financial compensation, a Jemena spokesperson said: “Our focus at the moment continues to be on restoring customers’ gas supply as quickly and safely as possible. Once customers have been restored we will work to understand if any further support can be provided.”

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