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RESIDENT KEEPS HOPING FOR STATE HELP TO AVERT NATIONAL FUEL SHUT-OFF

For most of the Zoar Valley residents affected by National Fuel's plans for its first residential gas shut-off in New York State, the story is over. But not for Keith Prieur.

While most of his neighbors have settled with the utility, Prieur is still fighting the company's plans.

Prieur, who with neighbors lost an appeal before the Public Service Commission in February, said he has sent a final letter seeking help to PSC Chairwoman Maureen O. Helmer. The letter was forwarded to Helmer's office through the office of state Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew.

There was no information available on where Prieur's case stood with Helmer's office, although Volker's office confirmed that it had been received and would be reviewed.

The Zoar shut-offs include seven customers. Overall, National Fuel is shutting off 38 customers in Western New York at sites where it has decided that the cost of replacing lines would be too high.

"It would be uneconomical to repair them," said Donna DeCarolis, a National Fuel spokeswoman. ". . . My understanding is that these were old gathering lines, not originally planned for gas service."

The gas lines were installed about 70 years ago to bring gas out of Zoar but were later fitted to supply area residents. Eventually, the pipes were phased out as a gas source and used only to supply customers.

Prieur said he objects to the cutoff because when he bought his 40-acre property 10 years ago, he was assured by National Fuel that gas would continue to be supplied. He said he later found out that the utility had first written residents about possibly shutting off gas to the area in 1983.

He also argues that his gas payments have helped underwrite maintenance and replacement on other customers' lines for years while his line was being neglected. Now, he says, it would be fair for the rest of the customer base to pay for repairs in his area.

The utility sent letters to the customers during the summer, setting an Aug. 31 date for abandoning the lines. That date has since been pushed back to Oct. 15.

Prieur contends that National Fuel used the Aug. 31 deadline to pressure his neighbors into taking what he considers unacceptable offers. The options included switching over to tank propane, taking buyouts to end service or pooling funds among the affected customers to pay for replacing the lines.

Prieur says that this amounts to no real choice, since the lump-sum buyouts of $4,900 would not begin to cover the loss in his home value and the cost of replacing the lines was originally placed at $274 per month per customer for 10 years.

Since other customers have accepted propane or buyouts, the cost to him for replacing lines has been raised to $1,096 per month.

"The letter they sent about Aug. 31, this intimidated the people. It scared them," Prieur said. "They're forcing you to take propane. There are no options."

Prieur objects to the switch to propane because of higher costs and what he views as the dangers of having an aboveground tank in a wooded area frequented by deer hunters. He also says deliveries may be impossible on his 1,500-foot-long driveway during the winter.

Prieur was particularly incensed by the letter stating the Oct. 15 shut-off date because it also asked him to sign away his right to sue National Fuel.

"Anybody in their right mind, they're not going to sign that," he said.

National Fuel's Julie Coppola Cox said that all of the other customers in the Zoar area had reached some kind of agreement with the utility but that Prieur had resisted contact with the company.

"We're really hopeful he will contact us and we will be able to work through the options before the lines have to be taken out of service. But a time will come when that has to be done."

Prieur, who says the company has left no communications on his answering machine, contends that the cutoffs could set a bad precedent.

"Pretty soon there's going to be a street with four or five people on it, and they're going to say, 'We're going to cut them off,' " Prieur said. "All I would say to them is 'Continue the gas service. That's what you told me was going to be done. Just do it.' "

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