Philadelphia Preps for Pricey Winter Season
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
Senator Hillary Clinton and a handful of congressional Democrats urged the Bush administration yesterday to increase funding to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program. The Energy Department recently announced that home heating bills would increase by as much as 50 percent this winter. That will suck hundreds of dollars from Americans' already strained budgets. And without increased federal support, some poor households may have to face the cold and the cost of keeping warm alone.
Few cities are more vulnerable to this looming energy crisis than Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NPR's Farai Chideya has the story.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Novaline Whitehead(ph) is 60 years old, divorced and disabled. She pays $600 in rent for her Philadelphia apartment, but she lives on $606 in Social Security disability, plus a small settlement from an accident. And now as winter approaches, she spends her time on the telephone with the gas company trying to keep the heat on.
Mrs. NOVALINE WHITEHEAD: `I don't have $74.' And she said, `Well, Mrs. Whitehead, if you don't have the $74, we're going to have to turn your gas off,' which was slated for the 10th of October. So I said, `Well, you know, you can't get blood from a turnip. If I can't give you $74 to keep it on, what makes you think I can pay you 300 and something dollars to turn it back on?'
CHIDEYA: But Pennsylvania residents like Whitehead may face a steeper battle than usual. A Pennsylvania law passed last November lets utility customers ask cut-off customers to pay $1,500 to reconnect. This is the first full winter the law will be in effect.
Ms. LIZ ROBINSON (Executive Director, Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia): Utility terminations statewide have risen by 58 percent.
CHIDEYA: Liz Robinson is the executive director of the non-profit Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia, one of the poorest cities in the country.
Ms. ROBINSON: In Philadelphia, we have had over 100,000 accounts terminated in the last 12-month period. That's a record for us.
CHIDEYA: While there are a mix of assistance programs from the federal government and the gas company, Pennsylvania is one of the few states that doesn't offer its own program.
Ms. ROBINSON: There just simply isn't the money anywhere in any system. So our neighborhood energy centers have been turning people away already for several months.
CHIDEYA: Robinson says this winter could bring fires, even deaths.
Ms. ROBINSON: What we'll see is an epidemic of kerosene space heaters this winter. The most dramatic thing that happens is that people put gasoline into them and they immediately explode and you get carbon monoxide poisoning. You'll see people leaving their homes if the winter is severe. So you'll see a rise in homelessness. All the repercussions are pretty awful.
CHIDEYA: In fact, the gas company serving Philadelphia, Philadelphia Gas Works, was fined $100,000 for improperly cutting off service to two elderly citizens who froze to death. Spokesperson Doug Oliver says the company has retrained employees, but argues low-income programs cannot fall solely on energy providers.
Mr. DOUG OLIVER (Spokesperson, Philadelphia Gas Works): Unfortunately, while utilities in general provide a basic social service, we are not a social service agency and we cannot give or be expected to just give gas away. What we can do is get people enrolled into programs that they may be eligible for. We can continue to fight, as we are, at both the federal and at the state level for LIHEAP heating funding, Low Income Home Energy Assistance program, to get funds to help people pay these bills.
CHIDEYA: Oliver also points out that Pennsylvanians rejected the chance to fund a state program.
Mr. OLIVER: They spoke very loud and clearly last summer when there was a proposal of a surcharge and said, `No way, nohow.'
CHIDEYA: Joe Rhodes is a former Pennsylvania state representative and former vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission. Now as a private consultant, he was retained by state Representative Dwight Evans to examine the new energy law.
Mr. JOE RHODES (Private Consultant): What this law did was put the rate payer at the mercy of the utility. That's not right.
CHIDEYA: Rhodes compares Hurricane Katrina's devastation of energy industries to an earthquake and the coming winter heating problems as a subsequent tsunami. Only the federal government, he argues, can prevent more deaths.
Mr. RHODES: The federal government has to increase its LIHEAP. And I hear that there's a squabble in the Congress between the Senate and the House and the White House over what ought to be done. There shouldn't be any squabble. We're not talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. We're talking about a couple of billion dollars to make sure that people in this country don't freeze to death this winter.
CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.