The city of Aspen on Tuesday declared a local disaster emergency in response to the natural gas outage and its effects on the city as Black Hills Energy estimated that about 2,000 customers impacted by the natural gas outage — nearly 65% — had their service restored.
The declaration cites the compounded hardships brought by the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Hills Energy natural gas outage that impacted 3,500 customers Saturday night. As of Tuesday, more than 170 technicians were working on relighting pilots in residences and businesses.
Acting City Manager Scott Miller issued the declaration today at 2:35 p.m., thus creating a state of emergency for Aspen.
"The declaration provides the city manager with the tools necessary to protect public health and safety. The declaration gives the city manager the authority to, among other things, shelter vulnerable populations for multiple days and access properties to protect vulnerable properties or individuals from injury or damage," a city press release explains.
“Additionally, this declaration provides the City of Aspen the ability to activate the response and recovery aspect of applicable local and inter-jurisdictional disaster and emergency plans for aid and assistance."
The declaration also notes the constraints of the outage occurring during a holiday week, when tourists occupy many lodging options and, with the increased demand, the rates of those options.
"The ongoing natural gas outage has created the potential for significant risk to the community's safety and welfare based on the cold winter temperatures. The city believes this action will help to enact emergency action as needed to avert danger or damage," the release asserts.
That said, nobody on Tuesday evening required lodging, Miller said. More than anything, he said that he issued the declaration as a precautionary measure in case the outage’s impacts last several days and the city requires assistance, especially monetary assistance, from the state.
“The county is issuing the same declaration in a couple of days or in a day, and we both agreed to do it just to be ready in case — we don’t know what’s coming the next couple of days — in case we need to access and ask for help from the state,” he said. “That’s why governments declare emergencies, so everyone is on notice: we’re having an emergency and we may be asking for your help.”
The city manager has the authority to issue a disaster emergency declaration for a period of up to seven days. The declaration must be confirmed and extended by Aspen City Council to be effective for longer than a week's duration. Council will consider taking this action, if necessary, early next week.
Aspen Police Assistant Chief Bill Linn said that he remained optimistic that everyone who lost gas-powered heat and hot water from Saturday night’s outage will likely have services restored by tonight.
“All fingers crossed, this will be done tomorrow,” he said Tuesday evening. “The good news is we’ve made a ton of progress on getting natural gas restarted in both the downtown core and residential areas in town. We’ve got all sorts of anecdotal evidence of just a bunch of people have called and said, ‘Thank you; we got our gas back on.’”
Despite some rumors and disgruntled social media comments suggesting that more affluent households saw their services returned before those in a lower socioeconomic bracket, both Miller and Linn discounted such assertions.
“Everything is prioritized geographically not by the use of the property or who owns it or anything,” Miller said of the grid approach taken by Black Hills Energy and its mutual-aid technicians.
“That makes zero sense because their entire plan is grid restoration. They go to one building, they take two steps left, then they go to that building,” Linn said. “The problem is, they can't turn something on if there isn’t somebody there to meet them.”
If nobody at least 18 years old is home to receive a technician, a notice was left on the door of the home with instructions for residents to reschedule.
Aspen police still have space heaters available, which can be picked up for free through a drive-thru operation established Monday. Miller emphasized the need for community during a difficult time for thousands of people.
“The government and Black Hills Energy can’t be everywhere at once, and Black Hills is working diligently to get everybody back on, but they’re not going to get everyone back on tonight,” he said. “I think the best thing people can do is check on your neighbors and make sure they’re alright.”
As for the ongoing investigation into the criminal incidences — three Black Hills Energy sites were targeted roughly the same time Saturday night — Linn confirmed that a second reference has been discovered by investigators to Earth First!, a radical environmental movement that has historically used civil disobedience to target what its followers deem environmental destruction. No organization has officially taken credit for the felony endangering utility transmission — which carries a presumptive penalty of between four and 12 years in the Colorado Department of Corrections and up to $750,000 in fines.
“We are still hoping that our community will look at the handwriting on those pipes and make them think of someone that they really want to call us about,” Linn said, noting that the APD main phone tree has been updated to accept tips. “As all of us are acutely aware right now, wow, this has really messed up our holiday season.”
Linn said that it was difficult to speculate the intentions of the perpetrators.
“The one thing we clearly know is that somebody did this on purpose, and whether they foresaw that we were going to have days of outages, who knows? But that is by all means the outcomes, and we would certainly like to catch up and talk to them about that.”