On Sunday, Dec. 20 at 11:48 p.m., a vehicle heading northbound on the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge left the bridge at 50 mph, ramming into the Williams NW Pipeline gate station located off of Highway 14, where NW Natural purchases its natural gas for local consumers.
Thus began the largest event NW Natural had experienced in 65 years.
Tanya Brumley, NW Natural Community Affairs manager for the Columbia Gorge region, who is based in The Dalles, and Kerry Shampine, senior manager of transmission and distribution, based in Portland, joined the Hood River Rotary virtual meeting March 11 to discuss the incident.
By 4:45 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 21, service was out on the Washington side of the Columbia; Hood River and Odell soon followed.
“We had 5,592 meters and no gas,” said Brumley. “Those closest to the accident lost their service first. Hood River still had gas (at that point) and thought they were lucky — and we had to inform them that, unfortunately, it was just because the (gas) pressure hadn’t dropped yet.”
Several factors complicated the response effort: Williams NW Pipeline had to first repair the gate station; it was the week of the Christmas holiday; a snowstorm occurred during the week; and COVID-19 precautions were necessary when entering homes to restore service.
The process to restore service took less time on the Washington side, with all service restored by Christmas morning, because that pipeline wasn’t damaged — it was the pipeline that leads to the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge that was the issue.
“We thought we were fine,” said Shampine. “(The gate station is) set back from the road and traffic is running parallel to it … coming off the bridge at 25 mph, and it’s been there for quite a while.” It will be rebuilt with additional precautions in place, he said.
“The pipeline on the Hood River bridge has been there for 60 years, with no issues, and is maintained by Williams Pipeline,” said Brumley. Once the pipeline was restored, the next issue arrived: Keeping people warm during a cold weather event.
Williams Pipeline, NW Natural, Hood River and Klickitat County Emergency Services and the Red Cross began to distribute 2,100 space heaters and 1,039 blankets, as well as supply hotel rooms in Hood River and The Dalles.
“Red Cross had blankets on hand, and so did Hood River County, so we used those until we could source some more,” said Brumley. Hotels in The Dalles were offered, she added, due to lack of hot water in some Hood River locations.
Beginning Tuesday night, Dec. 22, and through Thursday, Dec. 24, heaters and blankets were distributed in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints parking lot in Hood River. In White Salmon, the distribution site was located at the fire department.
“Pretty much, when we were at (the Hood River) site, it was nonstop cars, which was great,” Brumley said. For those who couldn’t come to the distribution sites because of COVID-19 infection, blankets and space heaters were dropped off on porches.
Four companies responded to the mutual aid request sent out by NW Natural: Puget Sound Power, Intermountain (located out of Boise), and Avista and Cascade Natural, both from the Tri-Cities.
This was only the second time NW Natural has had to request mutual aid, although they’ve provided aid to other companies, said Shampine.
He said that 160 responders were on site throughout the event, excluding Christmas, when they had about 100.
“People canceled their (holiday) plans so they could come and help,” Shampine said. “Emergency response is part and parcel for our company, but it’s nice to see people step up and provide aid to our customers.”
“We had people from two different departments doing two different things,” Brumley said of the restoration effort. “The distribution crew would be in one neighborhood and customer service techs in another, and people would wonder why they weren’t stopping door to door — it’s because they were assigned different tasks.”
Meters had to be turned off before gas could be reintroduced into the system. There were also COVID teams who donned special clothing and followed safety protocols for homes with known cases.
“The COVID teams would have special clothing … they put on for safety purposes before they could enter a house identified as a COVID house, before going in and lighting equipment, and then a special process once out of the house to de-clothe and go through those processes,” she said.
Total cost is still unknown — the legal department is currently resolving the issue.
“It’s probably seven figures,” Brumley said, noting costs range from paying crews overtime to emergency service expenditures to loss of business.
“Quick math, it’s $300,000 per day just for NW Natural alone,” said Shampine.
Rotarian and Hood River County Emergency Management Director Barb Ayres asked what the county can do in terms of redundancy of critical services in case a similar event occurs.
“We learned in this incident, we’re in a rural area and we have a profound lack of redundancy for the critical lifelines we need so much. It’s scary to think of something as important as power going across the river and shutting off on both sides of the river,” she said.
Brumley said that the actual pipeline comes out of Washington and about 10 years ago, NW Natural tried to get another transmission line through Warm Springs “for exactly the purpose you mention; however, it didn’t make it through the very regimented, regulated process to come to fruition.
“We’re doing a lot of work, but it’s not all under our control because we’re in a highly regulated environment,” she said.
Shampine said utility companies are very involved in planning for a Cascadia earthquake event — another concern expressed by Ayres — “but as you know, some of it you can plan and plan and plan … but sometimes you have to have a generic response plan and then it becomes very specific on site.”