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National Fuel charging Amherst to shut off gas; Town is changing to electric street lights

When homeowners fail to pay a couple of gas bills, they are hit with a shutoff notice from National Fuel. But the opposite is happening in Amherst.

Town officials are converting hundreds of gas-powered street lights to electricity, but National Fuel wants to charge the town hundreds of thousands of dollars to shut off gas service.

"They've sent us a bill. We're not going to pay it," said Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones.

In what is shaping up as the foundation for a major legal fight, the town is moving forward with the second phase of a plan to replace hundreds of inefficient gas-illuminated street lights with new electric lights leased from National Grid.

The town says it wants National Fuel to terminate gas service to the gas light standards on its residential streets and that any costs associated with ending that service should be borne by the gas company.

"Our position is, simply, turn the gas off," said Patrick Kelly, the deputy town attorney handling the case on the town's behalf.

It's not that simple, according to National Fuel.

Last year, the town replaced more than 200 gas-illuminated streetlights in the Dana Heights neighborhood between Sheridan Drive and Maple Road near Transit Road. But residents there were outraged when National Fuel crews came in and dug up their front yards to cap the gas lines that ran from the streetlight to the gas main at their homes.

"The process is extensive," said National Fuel spokeswoman Karen L. Merkel. "It involves excavation, locating the gas line, capping the gas line at the main line and the property restoration."

The gas company bore the upfront cost of capping the gas lines and restoring residents' yards but said the town should be ultimately responsible for paying for these costs.

When the town's Highway Department began preparations to move forward with the second phase of streetlight conversion in the Fairfax Estates and Village Green subdivisions between Maple and Sheridan, "cease and desist" letters from National Fuel appeared.

Monday, the Amherst Town Board reviewed a bill sent last week to Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson. It said the town owes National Fuel $113,427 for the removal of gas services to 225 street lights in the Dana Heights neighborhood last year and associated yard restoration work.

The board rejected the bill.

"They're saying they have to shut off and disconnect our service because it's a safety issue," Anderson said. "And we're saying go ahead and terminate the service. You're standing in our way."

Merkel said it's the town that is being uncooperative, refusing to acknowledge that safely capping gas lines is not a simple or inexpensive process.

"Evidently, it is the position of the Town of Amherst that all of National Fuel's customers should bear the costs of terminating the gas service to Amherst gas lights, and we don't believe that should be the case," she said. "We have not had this issue in any other municipality."

Merkel described the conflict as a "contract dispute" with the town, though Amherst officials maintain that any contract the town had with National Fuel expired in 2001.

Even if it hadn't, town lawyers said, there's nothing in the old contract that states the town is on the hook for gas termination costs associated with streetlight conversion.

"We're not asking them to remove anything," Kelly said. "We just want them to turn the gas off."

Anderson said the town is not dependent on the gas company's cooperation to move forward with its electric streetlight conversion. All that work is being done and contracted out by National Grid. Work on Fairfax Estates began last week, he said, with all capital costs being borne by the electric company.

None of the old gas light standards are being reused, Anderson said.

In fact, he said, because the electric street lights are so much brighter than the gas ones, the town will only need 135 electric-powered lights to replace the 280 gas-powered ones that the town wants removed at Fairfax Estates and Village Green this year.

Merkel said National Fuel has hired the same contractor doing the streetlight conversion work for National Grid to also terminate the gas lines. The company isn't waiting for everything to be settled with the town before it caps the lines.

"We felt that it was in the best interest of our customers to have the same contractor to do the work in the most efficient and safe manner," Merkel said.

Residents in the affected neighborhoods should have gotten letters from National Fuel over the weekend about work crew activities, she stated. Additional letters were sent out over the past two days.

Merkel said National Fuel still hopes to reach a compromise with the town regarding the 1,000 gas lights still to be converted in Amherst.

"There does not seem to be a sense of cooperation whatsoever," she said. "We do want to work together other than being adversaries."