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Blast leaves many in cold

Thousands without gas after explosion, but relief on way

Fire from the natural gas pipeline lights up the sky Saturday  morning near  Otterburne.

JORDAN MCRAE PHOTO Enlarge Image

Fire from the natural gas pipeline lights up the sky Saturday morning near Otterburne.

Ivan Balenovic apologized over the phone from his cheese plant in New Bothwell.

"I'm sorry if my voice is a little shaky," he said. "It's freezing here. I'm trying to type on my computer and my hands are freezing."

Balenovic is president and CEO of Bothwell Cheese, which on Sunday shut down processing operations -- and told 60-plus employees to stay home for Sunday night's shift -- because the facility remained without natural gas.

In all, about 4,000 Manitoba Hydro natural gas customers in the Red River Valley remained without heat as pipeline workers feverishly tried to restore natural gas to the region following a fiery, bellowing explosion near Otterburne early Saturday morning.

Most residents in New Bothwell, Niverville, Otterburne, St-Pierre-Jolys, Grunthal, St. Malo, Dufrost, Ste. Agathe, Marchand and Kleefeld are without heat.

TransCanada Corporation executive Karl Johannson will give a briefing today at 1:30 p.m. in Ile Des Chenes on the fire and the progress being made on pipeline repairs.

The vagaries of the near future had residents such as Jeff Main, of St-Pierre Jolys, feeling anxious.

"It's a little bit nerve-racking," said Main. "I've heard everything from 24 hours to five days (without gas). Do we drain out our water lines to prevent them from freezing or do we stick it out? What's going on here?

"There's a lot of people without heat. They're all looking for the same answers."

Late Sunday night, TransCanada Corporation advised Manitoba Hydro that work to bypass the damaged section of their pipeline has begun, and that the supply of gas to southcentral Manitoba could begin as early as tonight.

This comes from a press release from Manitoba Hydro: "TransCanada plans to provide gas to Manitoba Hydro’s distribution system in two stages:

 - The first stage will provide gas to rural muncipalities north of the damaged section of TransCanada’s pipeline, including Ste. Agathe, Niverville, New Bothwell, Kleefeld, Otterbourne and Marchand.

- The second stage -- approximately 12 hours later — will provide gas to the rural municipality of De Salaberry south of the damaged section including St. Malo, St. Pierre-Jolys, Grunthal and Dufrost."

Once gas supply has been restored, Manitoba Hydro will begin restoring gas service to individual households and businesses. Although the majority of customers will see an immediate resumption of gas service, it could still take at least two full days for some customers.

Manitoba Hydro is promising regular updates.

For Balenovic, each lost day at Bothwell Cheese is costing the company "tens of thousands" of dollars.

"We're playing it by ear," Balenovic said. "If it (gas) doesn't come on for a couple days, we'll have issues then."

The plant will continue to keep its store open but has shut down processing and packaging operations until heat can be restored.

Main and his wife and 16-year-old daughter, along with two cats, have been without heat since noon Saturday. The temperature in their home dipped to 13 C Sunday morning. "It was very cold," he said.

Like most affected residents, the Main family has made do by borrowing portable heaters from neighbours and friends.

"I'm going to stick it out as long as I can," the trucker said. "Unless the power goes out, then I'm gone. Maybe I'm being a little stubborn."

In fact, emergency "warming shelters" that had been established in area municipalities were mostly empty Sunday. It didn't help that treacherous winter conditions had closed down highways 59 and 75 south of Winnipeg.

"The truth is people are being very self-sufficient," said Heather Chambers Ewen, public information officer for the RM of Hanover. "The weather is also awful. Most people are staying in. They're really just weathering it out. They want to stay home and make sure everything's OK."

On Monday, TCC and Manitoba Hydro are opening a community information centre in Niverville for residents impacted by the gas outage. Hours of operation, starting today, will be 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Hydro spokesman Scott Powell said the utility can only await confirmation from TCC that the pipeline has been suitably repaired. Several dozen Hydro workers are on standby. Once the pipeline is repaired, Manitoba Hydro will have to repressurize the system. "We're still working out the details of that plan," Powell said.

Asked if that process would take hours or minutes, Powell replied, "It won't take minutes."

In the short term, Emergency Measures Organization officials have been working with local municipalities to arrange for tanker trucks carrying compressed natural gas to be delivered to "critical locations," including nursing homes and hospitals. The De Salaberry Health Centre in St-Pierre Jolys was hooked up at 2 a.m. on Saturday, while the Heritage Life Personal Care Home in Niverville and Menno Home in Grunthal were connected on Sunday morning.

Until natural gas service is restored, Manitoba Hydro is advising customers only approved space heaters should be used. Barbecues, kerosene heaters or temporary gas space heaters can produce harmful levels of carbon monoxide and pose a dangerous fire risk.

The Otterburne explosion is having ripple effects far outside the immediate region. In North Dakota, Xcel Energy -- which is supplied by TransCanada Corp. -- was on "high alert" as temperatures plunged and TCC continued to deal with repairs.

In an automated message to customers Sunday night, Xcel advised customers to conserve gas by keeping thermostats turned down to 16 C and to avoid using gas appliances.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, January 27, 2014 at 8:00 AM CST:
Adds information from Manitoba Hydro.

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