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Domestic spat puts heat on National Fuel

A newly divorced mother of five children living in one of Amherst's most exclusive neighborhoods found out this weekend what it's like to have the heat shut off in the middle of winter.

It was not a pleasant experience, according to Eileen M. Goldstein, who said her ex-husband, a doctor, had terminated the utility service.

When she realized late Friday night that the gas had been turned off earlier in the day, she began making calls to National Fuel Gas, but said she was told nothing could be done until the utility's business offices opened on Monday.

"I'm not going to change my ex-husband, but National Fuel should have somebody on call to handle these emergencies that leave people without heat from Friday to Monday. That's my main complaint," Goldstein said Saturday. "We had 40-degree temperatures in the house and icy water in the showers."

Her former husband, Dr. Harvey R. Goldstein, moved out of the home about two years ago, but, until the divorce became final, he had kept the utilities in his name.

By about 8 p.m. Saturday, National Fuel had resumed service to the Goldstein home on LeBrun Circle after the utility was contacted by The Buffalo News and informed that Eileen Goldstein and her lawyer, James Renda, were willing to provide the money to back up her request for placing the gas account in her name.

"I think it is unusual that this happened over the weekend, and that's why the company is willing to treat this in an extraordinary way," said Julie Coppola Cox, National Fuel spokeswoman.

Part of the problem, Cox explained, was that the utility acted on the "customer of record's request to turn off the service" -- Dr. Goldstein.

Cox confirmed what Eileen Goldstein and her lawyer said: that there was an outstanding unpaid balance on the account for the LeBrun Circle residence.

According to Renda and his client, the ex-husband owes National Fuel $1,800 from 2005. The 6,500-square-foot house has heating bills of well over $1,000 a month during the winter.

Dr. Goldstein, a gastroenterologist who is unable to practice because of a hip problem, had called National Fuel to cancel his account, but did not switch the account to his ex-wife, Renda said.

Patrick C. O'Reilly, the attorney for Dr. Goldstein, insisted that his client's ex-wife had plenty of advance notice that the utilities were now her responsibility.

"It's right in the agreement that we signed a month ago," O'Reilly said. "She certainly has enough money. All this is, is a misunderstanding. Harvey didn't do anything wrong. He paid her ahead of time for February."

O'Reilly said his client paid the $1,800 bill on Friday and the ex-wife knew ahead of time the service was being terminated.

National Fuel, Cox said, had no way of knowing the circumstances involving the Goldsteins because the utility does not involve itself in domestic matters.

Eileen Goldstein said she understands the utility company can't get involved in domestic difficulties, but that a red flag should have gone up at National Fuel when the request to end gas service was made by an individual who did not live at the residence.

"There should have been a letter notifying the occupant at the premises ahead of time or on the day service was terminated to let the people at the house know," she said, explaining that the fuel bills were mailed to her husband's residence elsewhere in Amherst.

Eileen Goldstein, who has five children ranging in age from 20 to 10 with Dr. Goldstein, said her ex-husband had called her several days ago to tell her he was putting the natural gas bill in her name.

"I'm upset he wasn't able to let me know his intention was to terminate the service," she said.

But, she said, she is much more upset with the responses she received from National Fuel workers during a series of several telephone calls over Friday night and Saturday.

"One worker told me there is a seven-day grace period when a request to terminate service is made. Another told me there's a 10-day grace period. They should have sent out a notice during the grace period, just like insurance companies do," she said.

Renda said he also had no success Saturday during several telephone conversations with National Fuel hotline workers.

"In one of the calls, I said 'Look, no one is going to die here. This lady has money, but what about some other family? This is winter. It's February.' But it was like talking to a wall. They said she has to go to the business office on Monday," Renda said.

When Eileen Goldstein told the utility workers she would file a complaint with the state's Public Service Commission, Renda said, "My client was told by National Fuel to 'do what you have to do.' I think they are arrogant and insensitive."

In contrast to her experience with National Fuel, Eileen Goldstein said she called National Grid Friday night and was able to place the electric account in her name.

"They were very helpful and very sympathetic. I was able to put the electric service into my name at 11 o'clock on a Friday night and I was assured the electric would not be cut off," Eileen Goldstein said.

National Fuel, Cox said, makes every effort to accommodate all of its customers.

"There are levels of appeal and different management at any time of the day," Cox said. "It's always our intent to be fair to customers and offer them the best possible service."

But National Fuel has had problems in the past. In 2001, Velma A. Fordham, an East Side resident, froze to death after her gas was shut off. The woman's daughter has alleged that repeated requests were made to the utility to restore gas service.

National Fuel later reached an agreement with the Public Service Commission to establish the Customer Assistance Referral and Evaluation Services program, which provides $400 grants to eligible customers moving from Social Services to self sufficiency.

According to Cox, National Fuel continues to dispute the cause of Fordham's death.


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