GASSED UP - Utility-Starved Clay County Cheers Mountainer

By Sarah K. Winn

Even with the unseasonably cold weather early this month, Lesha Butcher didn't have to put one black mark on the calendar in her Ivydale restaurant.

Before Mountaineer Gas took over gas operations in Clay County in February, Butcher's wall calendar was marked every day with a call about poor gas service.

"It's great not having to worry about the gas going off," she said from her home in Ivydale. "Try being in here when it's zero degrees."

Clay County's gas problems came to a head Feb. 15, when the state Public Service Commission ordered the county's three gas companies — Wagner, Beechy and Valley — turned over to Mountaineer Gas.

The PSC said there was "pervasive and continuing inability and/or unwillingness" by the companies' owner, John Habjan, to provide adequate service to the customers.

The next day, Clay Circuit Judge Rick Facemire appointed Mountaineer Gas as temporary owners, even though Valley Gas filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy minutes before the 9 a.m. hearing. (U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald G. Pearson later dismissed Valley's case, leaving all three companies under Mountaineer control.)

Since Feb. 17, Mountaineer Gas workers have been in Clay County every weekday and some weekends, said Danny Chandler, Mountaineer's operations director.

The utility has spent $42,000 in maintenance and operations costs, he said, mostly to fix leaky lines and replace meters and regulators.

"That's a good bit of money for 900 customers," Chandler said.

No capital projects, like replacing lines, are planned yet, because Mountaineer is just maintaining the utilities. But the company is talking with Habjan about buying the companies, Chandler said.

Clay County Commissioner Fran King has also had a couple of complaint-free months.

"Everybody is absolutely tickled to death," she said. "I've not heard one bad or negative comment. There's just an air of satisfaction."

Still, some residents would like to have lower gas rates, in general, she said.

"But, it doesn't seem that they mind the rates when they are getting the service they deserve," she said.

Joyce Butcher, Lesha Butcher's mother-in-law, said she is happy with the consistent service.

She said she called on a Monday a month ago to report her broken regulator. Mountaineer was out at her home on Friday and apologized that it took so long.

That would have never happened before, she said.

"I'm pleased that we are away from Habjan," she said. "If you can see them [Mountaineer Gas] working and when you call them they come, that's just really something."

To contact staff writer Sarah K. Winn, use e-mail or call 348-5156.