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NATIONAL FUEL CITED IN DEATH OF WOMAN

The cold killed Velma Fordham in February as she huddled under a blanket on the floor of her unheated apartment near Schiller Park.

But National Fuel Gas Co. appears to have "directly contributed" to the 58-year-old woman's death and violated state law by refusing her repeated pleas to turn on the gas, a state agency says.

National Fuel now has a month to explain to the state Public Service Commission why it should not be hit with penalties that could reach nearly $19 million.

"It appears the company may have violated certain provisions of the public service law . . . and that these violations directly contributed to the death of this customer," the commission said in a report filed last week.

National Fuel officials "don't agree with the assessment presented" by the PSC order, said Julie Coppola Cox, a utility spokeswoman. She said the utility did try to turn on the gas but could not get into the apartment to do so.

"We were absolutely horrified when we learned what happened," Cox said Thursday. "We did try to turn service on for her."

Cox declined to respond in detail to the commission's allegations that the company may have violated the consumer protection law.

A landlord's employee found Fordham's body in late February, three months after she began trying to start gas service to her new apartment, the commission said. She at one point tried to begin resolving a $2,100 debt to the utility with $710 in heating assistance money.

Police ruled Fordham's death an accident after an autopsy determined she died from hypothermia.

The state investigation has shed new light on the events that preceded Fordham's death. She did not, it seems, die solely because she missed appointments with the gas serviceman.

The commission found evidence of only one attempt by National Fuel to turn on the gas at her apartment, and that occurred in the middle of December, three weeks after the company had agreed to begin gas service Nov. 21.

When the gas wasn't turned on, Fordham visited National Fuel's customer assistance center Nov. 29 and filled out a second application for service.

During that visit, a National Fuel representative denied her request because of the $2,100 unpaid bill for which the company had obtained a court judgment.

In the days before that visit, temperatures had dropped to as low as 19 degrees.

Even after Fordham came up with $710 later that day, National Fuel again denied her service and did not offer her a deferred payment plan, the commission said.

With the commission's report, sadness among Fordham's friends has turned to anger.

"They should be investigated," Mary Reed, one friend, said of National Fuel. "You shouldn't die over a gas bill. This has got to stop, or they're going to find someone else dead this winter.

"When someone puts in for gas to be turned on, especially during the winter, they should make sure the gas is turned on," she added. "Or at least they should call the landlord and make sure no one is living there."

Safety net in place

In fact, New York State has a good system to try to prevent these kinds of tragedies, said Gerald A. Norlander, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, an Albany-based advocacy group for low-income residents.

"It's amazing," Norlander said of Fordham's death. "There was supposed to be a safety net in place, and it should have worked."

Commission spokesman David Flanagan called it "obviously a very unfortunate story and a very tragic story."

It is also rare.

Before Fordham's death, it had been many years since a New York resident had died because of a lack of heat.

The last time anyone saw Fordham alive, police said, was in late January.

Fordham had no immediate family in the Buffalo area.

Joe Bishop, Reed's son, even went to Fordham's apartment three times after Christmas to check on her, but he did not find her there the first two times he visited.

Bishop, who works for Fordham's landlord, said he found unpacked boxes inside Fordham's apartment, and he and others speculated she was staying with somebody else.

When he checked for the third time on Feb. 20, Bishop tripped on a blanket as he walked through the dining room. He pulled back the blanket and found Fordham's body.

"She was balled up behind the TV on the floor," Bishop said. "Everything was under the blanket. Evidently she was trying to keep warm."

Fordham had been dead for at least three weeks when her body was found, authorities said.

Struggle for assistance

Fordham's struggle began Nov. 21, when she moved from 66 Girard Place to a rear apartment at 227 Burgard Place.

The commission detailed the developments:

Fordham called National Fuel on Nov. 16 to stop gas service at Girard Place on Nov. 20 and to turn on gas service the following day in her new apartment.

As agreed, National Fuel turned off the gas at Girard Place on Nov. 20, only hours before a blizzard paralyzed Buffalo, stranding workers in their offices, clogging streets and making travel virtually impossible. As a result, National Fuel could not keep the appointment to turn on the gas at Burgard Place.

When Fordham called National Fuel the next day, a representative told her someone would come out later that day to turn on service. Fordham's landlord, Paul J. Hissin of Amherst, also called National Fuel and made the same request. He was told that the service order had been issued and that the service personnel had been instructed to call him in advance to make sure the apartment was accessible.

National Fuel did not turn on the gas that day, either.

Cox said National Fuel doesn't believe the PSC order takes enough consideration of the disruption caused by the storm, which made travel difficult in the city for days afterward. The storm forced National Fuel crews to focus on emergency calls and kept them from performing normal service calls.

"We did, in fact, try to turn her gas on," Cox said.

But the PSC report said the only attempt the company made to turn on the gas occurred Dec. 14.

Fordham's third attempt

A week after the storm, on Nov. 29, with Western New York in the midst of a bitter cold snap, Fordham went to National Fuel's customer assistance center and filled out another application for service.

The company's computer system, however, showed Fordham owed $2,100. National Fuel had also obtained a judgment against her for repayment of the debt.

The National Fuel representative denied her gas service.

Fordham then left for the nearby county welfare office, where she received a voucher for $710 in aid under the Home Energy Assistance Program.

She returned to National Fuel's assistance center with the HEAP authorization but was told the utility would not turn on the gas.

Two weeks later, on Dec. 14, a National Fuel serviceman did go to Fordham's apartment to turn on the gas service, stemming from the initial order from Nov. 16 that was unfilled because of the snowstorm. But the serviceman could not get into her apartment.

National Fuel sent Fordham a form letter, dated Dec. 19, informing her the company had tried to turn the gas on and asking her to reschedule the appointment.

Cox noted that Fordham never responded to that letter.

"We believe it was received and opened," Cox said of the letter. "We don't know why she didn't respond."

National Fuel's handling of Fordham's case appears to violate three provisions of state law, the commission said.

The law was passed to protect consumers from having their service cut off without good cause and advance notice.

Legal grounds in doubts

First, National Fuel does not appear to have had legal grounds to deny Fordham gas service when she moved, because the law considers a move from one location to another within a utility's service area to be a continuation of the customer's existing service.

"That provision was made exactly for this situation," said Norlander of the Public Utility Law Project. "Back in the 1970s, that happened a lot. People (with outstanding balances) would get caught when they moved.

"In the low-income community, the average duration of a tenancy is 2 1/2 to three years," Norlander said. "This was an opportunity for the company to squeeze the customers and get them to make payments on bills that were in arrears."

Second, National Fuel also appears to have violated a provision that requires utilities to provide service within five business days after an application is filed.

Third, the company also failed to try to negotiate a deferred payment agreement with Fordham. The law requires utilities to make reasonable efforts to negotiate such deferral plans in good faith.

National Fuel's policy against entering into such deferred payment agreements with customers who have judgments against them for unpaid bills runs contrary to the law, the commission said.

"They're supposed to negotiate something based on what the customer can afford," Norlander said.

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com
and drobinson@buffnews.com

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