No Gas Today... Diary of a National Crisis
Karen Johnson, from Out of the Kaje #2 (October 1998)

On Friday 25th Septrmber 1998, there was an explosion at ESSOís gas processing plant in Gippsland. The resulting fire shut down the plant, crippling the gas supply for virtually all of Victoria. This diary combines the facts as reported in the media (newspapers, TV, radio) with my own observations and experience of  life without gas. It is not intended to be a political statement or a casting-of-blame, but a simple piecing together of events.


Friday

Dad started a few days leave today, so I took us all out for lunch. We went to Yering  Station, and had a lovely laid-back lunch in their cafe. On the way home, we heard that there was a problem at the Gas plant down in Gippsland.   Thereís been a fire of some sort, and the main gas pipeline has had to be shut down for the time being. The only gas left is what is in the pipes, so itís being rationed. Once itís gone, itís gone, so people have been asked to turn off their central heaters and not to use gas stoves. Hot water services are OK for the time being, but we all wash our hair just in case.
A few more details emerge on the evening news - there was a small explosion near the control room, which set off a string of increasingly large explosions, and started a massive fire. Seven  workers were severely burned, and two men are missing. The fire is probably going to have to burn itself out, as itís too dangerous to get close. Theyíre still worried that there might be more explosions (and/or that the fire will spread to the other two processing plants), so theyíve evacuated everyone in a 6km radius of the plant.
I stayed at Roseís tonight. When we came home after the MSFC meeting, the girls had gone out and left the gas heater  on. They hadnít heard anything about the crisis. When they came home and we told them about it, they thought we were joking for quite a long time.


Saturday

I went into the city today. Melbourne Central was functioning pretty  much as usual, except that there were signs on all the take-away-food places saying ĎOpen with a limited range, due to gas restrictionsí. The only Asian food available in Daimaru was in the Indian section, and their sandwich bar was closed until further notice. The Paul Bocuse bakery was operating as normal, and it had a big sign on the counter telling everyone it was fully electric. I bought a few croissants to take home, as bread might be a bit hard to get hold of.
The fireís still burning, but not as much. Almost every fireman in the state is down in Gippsland. The rest of the plant was saved, but plant No. 1 is a total write off. Current estimates say that it may take up to 12 weeks to repair the damage and get the gas flowing again. 12 weeks without hot water! Thank goodness  we have an electric oven, a microwave, and most importantly a two element electric hotplate which we bought last year to cook the Christmas pudding outside. Otherwise it would be salads forever more.


Sunday

All  the gas is gone now, and industry is shut down until further notice. They had an announcement on the radio last night telling everyone to go outside and turn their gas main right off, by turning the little lever 90 degrees. Apparently theyíre sending inspectors around first thing this morning and anyone still drawing gas will be fined $500 on the spot. They can do that because the government has declared a State Emergency. Now the gas-free period is predicted to only be 1 week. In the meantime, theyíre trying to cobble into the New South Wales supply to provide gas for Hospitals and Old Peopleís Homes.
Dad turned the hot water service right off yesterday morning, but surprisingly the water was still slightly warm (much less than cold) this evening, so we didnít have to have a cold shower.
People were discussing their solutions to the crisis at Church this morning. A few lucky households are all-electric so they can continue as usual, but many people are even worse off than we are. The Kaye family are entirely gas-driven, so theyíre going down to their holiday house (with tank gas) for the duration.  Another family went to have the first of many barbecues, but their gas bottle sputtered to a halt half-way through. Iím not sure if theyíll be able to get it filled in the near future. Isnít cylinder gas a by-product of normal (pipe) gas production? I suppose that gas cylinders or tankers could travel from interstate without too much trouble.


Monday

One week, two weeks, they really donít have a clue. Our good Premier is making speeches about the crisis and ĎNational Resolveí  left, right and centre, but there isnít actually anything he can do about it. The Salvos and other aid agencies are being run off their feet by people who donít own any electrical appliances and who canít afford to rush out and buy them. The only electrical appliance we might have a problem with is the kettle - itís only a little old 5 cup version, and itís not going to last the distance. Mum went looking for an Urn yesterday, but (surprise, surprise) there werenít any left in the whole of Ringwood.
There were more announcements on the radio this afternoon - the Bakerís Delight chain of bakeries is entirely electric, and theyíre working overtime to make more ordinary bread for people to buy; and the major supermarkets are bringing bread and milk from interstate (without gas the pasteurisers donít work so all the Victorian milk has to be poured down the drain. What a waste!) There might be shortages of other products in the near future, but for the moment itís business as usual, except for all the factories, small business and other commercial operations relying on gas. There are an awful lot of people out there being forced to take their annual leave when they hadnít planned to, but at least theyíre getting paid.
At least we donít have to worry about the electricity running dry as well - they made an announcement that there is actually a large surplus, because of all the factories etc. closing.
On the good news side, the fire is out, and the long arduous repair job has been started. Theyíve cut the lines between processing plant One (where the fire was) and the other two, so now theyíre trying to get them to work by themselves. The second two plants can provide more than enough gas for everyone, but there was only one control room and itís kaput. It seems like very poor design to me - it may have been the cheapest way to build it, but wouldnít it have made more sense to run the three plants in parallell rather than inextricably tied together?


Tuesday

Beer is running out now. Iím not sure whether theyíve run out of bottles to put it in, or if the brewing process relies on gas, but thereís only a one week supply left in Victoria and they canít make any more. Iím sure itís a tragedy for lovers of VB.
Itís back to a two week gas-free period now, and the Premier is promising to consider very carefully who gets the gas first - residental consumers or industry. No prizes for guessing which way heíll jump - Industry is losing mega-bucks over this, and they can sue. Iíd think that this was an election issue (the Federal election is on Saturday) but no, itís just considered a freak accident. At the moment, Iíd vote for anyone who could get me a guaranteed supply of hot water - ours is stony cold now, and Iím facing my first cold shower.
Later - Been there, done that, and it wasnít pleasant! I hope this gas crisis doesnít last long enough for  me to get used to cold showers.


Wednesday

News Headlines today - theyíve upped the fines for illegally using gas by a factor of ten. Now the maximum fine is $10,000 for a private household and $100,000 for a business. I can see how some small business-owners might be tempted, despite the fines, because they are really suffering. A lot of restaurants, take-away food places, bread shops etc. are closed for the duration, and many others are using makeshift arrangements to try to get around the shortage, using urns, BBQs, camp ovens etc. One restaurant blew sky high yesterday while the owners were trying to change a propane gas cylinder, so not all of these Ďarrangementsí are really safe.
We went up Mount Dandenong this afternoon because a) it was a lovely day, and b) they donít have mains gas up there, so they canít have run out. Everything is open, but there were a few restrictions eg. We couldnít have chips with our pies, because the gas fryers were turned off, but we could still have pies  by themselves.


Thursday

They say no news is good news. If thatís  true, then we must be doing OK. Unfortunately, many people arenít. More small businesses are closing down, not because they rely on gas themselves, but because they get parts or stock from factories that do... The experts are saying that this is the worst economic crisis to hit Victoria since the Great Depression. The big law firms have already launched a class action against ESSO on behalf of all the people out of work etc. The politicians are calling them Ďvulturesí for not waiting until it was all over, but there is a real reason why they mustnít - as soon as the Victorian Parliament sits again (next week) they are very likely  to pass a law prohibiting class actions against ESSO, along the lines of the laws against sueing your employers for negligence which contributes to or causes serious injury/death, sueing for damages to your property caused by official works (passed to stop people from claiming damages after the Albert Park/Grand Prix development) etc.
In the meantime, aid agencies have called for the government to officially recognise this as a disaster equivalent to fire/flood damage, and give all the affected workers special consideration in terms of New Start (in other words, waive the six month waiting period and  give them some money before their families are destitute). The Government has said no.
Unfortunately, there is a small group of people who are excluded from taking part in the lawsuit. Because of the Workerís Compensation law I  mentioned above, the workers who were injured in the fire, and the families of the men who were killed outright, canít sue. They just have to accept what they are given, which is small compensation for the tragedy theyíve suffered.


Friday

The last day before the election. In a peculiar coincidence, the government has made two announcements. One, gas will hopefully be flowing again from Monday evening, starting with businesses. Residential households will have to wait another week for hot water if all goes well. Two, the Victorian state governmentís claims that this is not a National Disaster have been overruled. The federal government announced a $1 000 000 aid package for affected businesses (big and small), and anybody who has suffered financially through the lack of gas. Full details will be published in the newspapers tomorrow, despite protests that this is a blatant vote-grabbing attempt, which should not be allowed to take place. In an attempt to defuse the potential situation, Labour has promised that if it is elected tomorrow, it will still honour the promises that the Liberals are making today.
At the MSFC tonight there were some interesting discussions centering around the subject of gas - why this whole mess happened, and how it could have been prevented (by duplicating services etc.) From there, the conversation moved onto Election issues. I was drawn into a debate on the subject, but it has no place here so I wonít repeat it.


Saturday

The Age this morning was full of letters about the gas crisis, and they also had a fascinating (but very disturbing) article about the fires. No speculation, extrapolation, or casting of blame, just a straightforward factual reconstruction of Fridayís events. Unfortunately, itís not complete by any stretch of the imagination, because ESSO has banned their employees from speaking to the media. Their excuse is that an official investigation is underway, no-one really knows the whole story yet, they donít want workers spreading contradictory and not neccessarily factual stories etc.
Mum and Dad have gone to my cousinís engagement party up in Bendigo. Unfortunately, their motel doesnít have any hot water, but as a consolation theyíre taking $10 off the bill. Iím not sure that makes up for it, but itís better than nothing. Mum says that if one more person says Ďcold showers arenít really that badí sheíll kill them - every time someone says it, a closer investigation reveals that they have (guess what) an electric hot-water service, so they havenít had to have any! I washed my hair in cold water for the second time this morning. Iím not going to be able to force myself to do it more than once more, so weíd better get water soon.
That reminds me of a story I heard at the MSFC last night - somebodyís relation is an electric hot-water-service-installer by trade, and he got an emergency call on Friday night. What was so incredibly urgent? The local brothel needed two electric hot-water-services so that they could continue their business throughout the coming weeks!


Sunday

Today is FREEZING! Iíve had two jumpers on all morning, and Iím still cold. Winter had seemed to be over, but now itís back with a vengeance.
I shouldnít really be complaining - weíve been very lucky with the weather this week. Itís been unseasonably warm (one day was actually over 30 in the city) so we havenít  missed the central heating. We could have had real problems if this had happened three months ago rather than now. As it is, the support groups for disabled people and Carers were really worried that the elderly, frail and weak who were living at home would all end up in hospital with gas-shortage-related injuries or illnesses  ranging from burns and scalds (from trying to handle kettles and saucepans of boiling water) to malnutrition, and hypothermia from lack of heating. Everyoneís been working overtime to try and avoid this, and it hasnít been a big problem, largely due to the good weather. What would happen if it dragged on is another matter, but a resolution is expected by tomorrow night.


Monday

After 11 gas-free days, itís all over bar the shouting. Last night they finally got gas plant number two up and running, so now there is a little gas going into the system. They say that plant number three will follow later this week, and then thereíll be plenty of gas for everyone (Cross fingers, touch wood, breathe a quick prayer).
Now comes the crunch. Even though they have positive gas pressure, we (private households) still canít have any. The first gas has gone to Ďselected industriesí, and theyíre going to stagger the gas switch-on to make sure that they donít run out again. Iím not sure how theyíre selecting the industries, but I believe that theyíre starting with the milk and bread factories, and some other  middle-sized consumers. The car factories are still closed, because they use too much gas, and so are (presumably) places like ACI (the glass factory). I also donít know when the small businesses eg.fish and chip shops etc. are going to get to switch on, but I hope it will be soon - theyíre the ones who have suffered most during the last week. The really big companies may have been losing thousands of dollars every day, but it wonít make much of a dent in their annual profits,  while a small family business which relies on having a certain amount of cash-flow every week to pay off the mortgage may go to the wall.
They keep having announcements telling people NOT to switch on their gas taps before theyíre told to. Itís supposed to be dangerous to do it yourself without detailed instructions (what can be so hard about turning a valve anti-clockwise?) and there isnít enough gas anyway. Just please, please let it be soon!


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Want to contact me? E-mail karenji@labyrinth.net.au