A host of county, city and state officials asked citizens to stay calm at a press conference this afternoon, stating that while steps are being taken to relieve the gas shortage, supplies would be spotty for at least another week, though more fuel is coming into the region. Mayor Terry Bellamy also criticized the state government for slow action, while state Rep. Charles Thomas said large oil companies “are begging us to regulate them.”
“We realize right now that a lot of our citizens are struggling, our businesses are struggling,” Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey said, adding that the county is closing offices on Friday and Monday. “The county is not suggesting anyone panic. The county is taking these measures to calm panic by making more fuel available to our community.”
He asked people not “to call 911 to locate fuel — you can do that by calling 211 or using the county Web site.”
“Fuel supplies will remain spotty at best and we’ll likely see more disruptions over the next week,” Deputy Fire Marshal Mack Salley said.
Colonial Pipeline spokesperson Steve Baker told Xpress today that as of this morning, 19 refineries were still operating at reduced capacity or shut down altogether, while 13 were back at full production. Salley noted “as a piece of good news” that a gas shipment to the Spartanburg, S.C., distribution center is expected tomorrow.
Vice Chair David Gantt sounded a similar note to Ramsey. “This is an emergency, this is a really bad situation, we just don’t need to panic about it,” he said. “Supplies will get back to normal. We’re going to get through this, we’re going to be fine.”
Sheriff Van Duncan asked that gas-station owners not call his office unless the traffic stops completely or a fight begins, and said that panic has been making the shortages worse.
“A lot of this problem seems to be driven by people panicking and driving around from station to station looking to top off their tanks,” he said. “Fuel supplies that last two to three days are lasting a matter of hours because people are in that panic mode.”
Emergency services are continuing to operate and have enough gas for five days in the county and 11 in the city. But both expect new supplies within two days.
But part of the reason the area is suffering is because it has a lot of smaller chains or independent dealers, and fuel is allocated first to the major oil companies, Salley said.
“We’ve found out recently how heavily dependent the region is on the independent dealers, and those people are getting the least amount of gas at this time,” he said, adding that Colonial’s Spartanburg center was running low “and is restricting supplies to the branded companies: The independents are shut out.”
However, Baker defended Colonial’s distribution, asserting that the company is trying to deal with the problem as quickly as possible.
“Deliveries are made in the amount that our customers asked for — every year they set how much they’ll need for a month,” he told Xpress. “There’s no magician that’s waving their wand and ordering all of this. We’re working as fast and as efficiently as we can to get this resolved. I hope everything calms down soon and gets back to normal.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Bruce Goforth said he’d just spoken to Gov. Mike Easley, who is “working overnight on major oil companies to make a commitment to increase their allocations to the western part of the state. We’ll have quite a bit more gas coming here in the next two days.”
But Thomas attacked the oil companies’ allocation scheme as being part of the problem.
“The public does have every right to be angry,” he said. “If the big oil companies can’t do a better job of managing their supply, then they are begging us to regulate them.”
Bellamy also said that she was disappointed that Gov. Easley “is only responding today” and that “Western North Carolina needs to stand up and tell the governor how we feel. North Carolina doesn’t stop at Hickory. It shouldn’t take one of our colleagues in Raleigh to make it happen. I’ve gotten e-mails from moms telling me they need to get their kids to a doctor’s appointment. It’s just disappointing in a day and time like this to see that we all have to bond together to make sure Raleigh knows we exist.”
She asked local gas-station owners to limit the amount of gas sold to each individual and said that the Asheville Police Department will be stepping up patrols at gas stations.
Other steps in response to the shortage include:
• County government is requiring all departments to operate with reduced staffing and is closing offices on Friday and Monday for all nonemergency personnel.
• The city of Asheville will close its nonemergency offices on Friday and Monday as well, though employees can still be reached by phone and e-mail. All Parks and Recreation facilities will be closed the same days, except for after school child-care. The Civic Center will be closed on Friday.
• A-B Tech closed at 4:30 p.m. today and will decide Sunday if it will reopen next week.
• The town of Woodfin has been running on a four day work-week, but anticipates that otherwise services will continue as normal.
• The town of Black Mountain is also running on a four-day work-week, and most of its administrative employees are working from home. After two days without gas, the town’s major-company gas stations received fuel last night.
• Buncombe County schools has full fuel tanks and is sharing with the Asheville City Schools. Both systems already had a teacher workday scheduled for Monday. Field trips have been postponed and workshops cancelled.
— David Forbes, staff writer
photo of Mayor Terry Bellamy and Sheriff Van Duncan by Jonathan Welch