CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday grilled a Spire Missouri official over an email sent to residents last week warning of potential natural gas outages this winter, with the council later pledging to hold a hearing to get to the bottom of the issue.
Spire on Nov. 5 sent an email to its more than 600,000 customers warning of a potential gas shutoff: “While the STL Pipeline continues to operate today, it is now in jeopardy.” The email was sent after the U.S. Supreme Court last month rejected the company’s emergency request to keep operating a 2-year-old bistate pipeline.
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The company said it could be forced to stop operating the pipeline on Dec. 13 unless the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission extends an emergency order granted in September. The decision followed a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in June, in a lawsuit brought by an environmental group, that FERC didn’t adequately demonstrate a need for the 65-mile pipeline.
The Environmental Defense Fund, the group that sued over the pipeline, has said Spire’s email warning to customers was overblown because FERC is likely to allow the pipeline to continue to operate through the winter.
Under council questioning on Tuesday, David Yonce, a Spire planning manager, said that about 400,000 homes in the region could lose gas supply eventually.
Spire has a contingency plan to keep “critical-needs customers,” like nursing homes and hospitals, with gas through the winter, Yonce said.
Yonce had been invited by Mark Harder, R-7th District, but council members Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, and Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said they wanted a special hearing with input “from all sides,” not just Spire. Trakas demanded the company’s contingency plan for the hearing.
Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, asked whether the email was “about putting pressure on FERC.”
“What is the purpose of sounding the alarm?” Fitch said.
Yonce said Spire believed the email “was the prudent thing to do because if we didn’t, if this does happen ... we would have been put on the spot for not communicating the risk,” he said.
“The risk is there, the risk is real. We do hope that FERC will issue the temporary certificate, but we do not know at this point in time if they will or when they will.”
Clancy criticized the decision to send the email, saying it “caused a lot of fear in the community.” A Spire associate had assured her that FERC was likely to approve the bill’s operation through the winter, she said.
“This feels a little bit like a manufactured catastrophe,” said Clancy, who also raised environmental concerns about the pipeline.
Council Chair Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, joined her, saying she would schedule a hearing with Spire and others.
“When we’re dealing with these pipelines, regardless of how state of the art they are, there have been major issues,” she said. “Environmentally this is probably not the best way to go, but we are here and we do have this and we need to make it right.”
Several people during the council’s public comment period also questioned Spire’s email and urged the members to dig into the issue.
The Rev. Darryl Gray, a pastor and local civil rights activist, said Spire was “two to three months too late.”
He said he was concerned about the impact on Spire customers in disinvested neighborhoods who may not have regular access to the internet and email.
“When we talk about the critical group that’s going to be impacted, they’re the same ones that didn’t get the email,” Gray said.
The council on Tuesday also rejected a proposal by Trakas to adopt a suite of new rules for public comment, including a stipulation that speakers have to stick to items the council has or will act on.
That part of the proposal drew criticism from council members and some residents.
Tom Sullivan, a longtime gadfly, said it would prevent residents from raising issues the council wasn’t aware of or had not addressed. That included a 2019 agreement for a North County recreation center as part of the county’s commitment to help fund an expansion of America’s Center Convention Complex. Days has withheld a final vote to release the convention center funds over the promised recreation center.
“You might remember that the North County Recreation Center was brought up by a citizen,” Sullivan said, referring to comments he made in June that raised the issue to the Council after two years of little discussion.
Trakas said critics were misinterpreting the proposal. He said it would allow people to raise issues the council had recently acted on.
Trakas has frequently accused the council of stifling public comment by limiting the public forum period to an hour. His proposal would have loosened other rules to make it easier to extend public forum.
Current rules give the chair discretion over whether or not to extend public comment, subject to approval by a council majority.
Trakas wanted to allow any member of the council to have the power to motion to extend public comment, subject to majority approval. And he wanted to forbid the council from limiting the number of people who can register to speak during public comment.
His proposal, which came in the form of a council resolution, died because no other council member seconded his motion for a vote.
Webb and Fitch said they wanted more time to digest the proposal and discuss it thoroughly.
The council also unanimously adopted a resolution honoring the 2020 University of Missouri-St. Louis men’s basketball team. The team over 2019-2020 earned its first NCAA Regional bid since 1998, but the March tournament was cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Editor’s note: Corrects the district represented by Councilwoman Rita Days.
Even Spire, the St. Louis-based natural gas utility, said it had yet to make sense of what the state's final order in its rate case ultimately means.