Gas company must remain transparent

Washington County, located in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, is not a quick ride from Blair County.

However, what is happening there should evoke notice and contemplation from people here and throughout the rest of the commonwealth.

For the benefit of readers who might have missed the article in Sunday’s Mirror, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania was reported to be in the process of shutting off service to about 1,700 Washington County customers.

According to Sunday’s article, the utility company said the decision to suspend service had been made “out of an abundance of caution,” although Columbia initially declined to indicate specifically why service was being suspended to the properties in question.

What the company did do was deny that there was any threat to customers and announce that warming centers had been opened due to the low temperatures outside.

The company’s opting for secrecy lacked good judgment.

How, or if, what’s happening in Washington County is related in any way to incidents outside of Pennsylvania last year could only be a subject of speculation. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has been blamed for a series of explosions in September that resulted in one fatality, two dozen people injured and more than 100 homes and businesses victimized by fire.

Besides the disclosure of the gas service shutdown and the news that there would be warming centers, about all that the affected people of Washington County could be certain last weekend was that the company was offering no timeline regarding when service might be restored.

The company said turning off all gas meters was required in the affected area before technicians could perform maintenance deemed necessary. The fact that such drastic steps had to be undertaken when weather conditions weren’t ideal was in itself cause for anxiety, alarm, speculation and rumors.

Columbia of Pennsylvania, from the start, should have been transparent, fully laying out the situation with which the company was dealing. People of Blair County would expect transparency if one of their utilities was confronted by serious problems demanding unusual steps.

What if one of this region’s electric suppliers suddenly informed customers, without any further information, that their service was going to be interrupted for an indefinite period?

What if a water company or authority would tell its customers that they shouldn’t drink or bathe in the water that was being piped into their homes until further notice, without any further information provided about the problem?

Certainly there would be grounds for concern — concern bordering on panic — over how long the water that customers had been drinking and otherwise using might not have been safe.

It’s hard to imagine a situation like Washington County’s evolving in this region, but that situation is instructive here nonetheless.

The vital point: People have a right to information that directly affects their lives.

If the news that has filtered out of Washington County is true, the fact that customers were denied vital information constitutes a travesty.

Any public utility should know better.

Without question, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania should have known better.