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Fayette County funeral home fighting Columbia Gas' decision to abandon service to the business

Fayette County funeral home fighting Columbia Gas' decision to abandon service to the business
Fayette County funeral home fighting Columbia Gas' decision to abandon service to the business 03:17

DUNBAR, Pa. (KDKA) -- Since 1902 Burhan-Crouse Funeral Home has been operating in Dunbar, Fayette County, serving its small community and beyond. But now Columbia Gas wants to abandon service to the business. 

The owner, Cathy Crouse, said two years ago, they received a letter from Columbia Gas stating the company would be replacing all the gas lines in the borough, including their property.

In that letter, shared with KDKA, Columbia Gas said, "Columbia Gas is making a significant investment to replace natural gas pipelines in your neighborhood ... The first phase of our work affects customers along portions on Connellsville Street, York Street, Clearview Avenue, Fayette Street, Hancock Street, Susan Street and Highland Avenue."

Burhan-Crouse Funeral Home is located on Connellsville Street.

The letter went onto say, "The project may include replacing your service line and moving any indoor gas meters outside at no cost to you."

Crouse said shortly after receiving that letter, Columbia Gas sent them another letter stating they planned to abandon services at the funeral home.

"We've been fighting them ever since," Crouse said.

After hiring an attorney and countless depositions asking Columbia Gas for a reason behind it, she said they claim it would be too expensive to replace the lines that connect to her property.

"I called and I spoke to a lady and she told me it would cost a million dollars and when I hired an attorney then they said it would be around $300,000," Crouse said.

In a petition, Columbia Gas states the lines were first installed in 1978 and are primarily vintage plastic. Since then, they've retired that system.

Columbia Gas stated in online documents that it would cost $300,000 to replace the lines and would result in an annual net revenue deficiency of $31,668.

Crouse said they've filed two lawsuits and have been fighting Columbia Gas and the Public Utility Commission for two years.

"You have this big, giant gas company, and you're just you. And now you have this entity that's supposed to be there for you, fighting back against you," said Crystal Crouse, Cathy's daughter.

Cathy Crouse said they've hired legal experts and have weighed other options like electric or propane in order to stay open.

"Electric is three times as expensive as natural gas and all my prices have gone up: vaults, caskets, all my suppliers, everything," Crouse said. "If I don't have gas and I can't afford to switch everything over, what am I going to do? I don't have $300,000 to replace it."

She said they also have five apartments above the funeral home that she would be forced to get rid of.

"The apartments, they need gas. They need gas, you know, for their hot water tanks, dryers and stoves. So everything, everything that I have, I would have to replace everything. Where am I going to get that money?" Crouse said.

Crouse's daughter lives in one of the apartments upstairs. KDKA-TV asked if she had a plan if the gas services are cut off.

"It's obviously a personal impact. It's not even something I've even thought of, because I've been so focused on, you know, trying to save the business, because there's, you know, not only family income, but we have employees that, you know, the loss of income would affect. Plus the effect on the community, and we've just been so focused on all of the bigger picture fight that I haven't even thought about myself to be honest with you," Crystal Crouse said.

KDKA reached out to the PUC, learning the chairman, Stephen DeFrank, sided with Columbia Gas to abandon services in April.

In a statement, DeFrank said Columbia Gas investigated four potential options to replace the main to the funeral home but said none were viable due to safety issues, railroad policies or cost.

He said the conversion to alternative fuel services, such as electricity and propane, are possible "albeit complex and/or expensive."

In a statement in April, DeFrank said, "The funeral home is located on a floodplain which would necessitate the construction of a platform or enclosure to house a propane tank. The estimates the funeral home owner received for converting to electric service are costly, which some exceeding $100,000. Heating costs for the funeral home will likely increase with a conversion to either propane or electricity when compared to prices for natural gas heating."

DeFrank went onto say, "As a Fayette County native, I am familiar with this area and empathize with the challenges facing businesses in a struggling economy. I am cognizant of the difficult circumstances that this funeral home faces related to the abandonment of gas service. However, ultimately, I agree that Columbia has handled this situation reasonably and in a manner consistent with its tariff. The cost of the replacement of this main is considerably uneconomic, as exhibited by the net annual revenue deficiency. It would be unreasonable for Columbia Gas, and therefore its ratepayers, to incur such uneconomic costs when alternative fuel sources are available to the funeral home."

"They're not supposed to be against you. One of them, at least, is supposed to be for you. They're supposed to be nonbiased, and they're supposed to be for the consumer and that's not how it is," Crystal Crouse said.

The PUC also sent KDKA a statement saying:

"The decision regarding the abandonment of a section of aging gas pipeline in Dunbar, Fayette County, was both challenging and complex, concluding after nearly two years of thorough examination of the evidence presented by Columbia Gas and a local business owner. The Pennsylvania Utility Commission carefully considered multiple factors before reaching a conclusion. These included the pipeline's age and associated safety concerns, which necessitated its retirement, a detailed analysis of alternative replacement projects and their costs, and the evaluation of conversion to different fuel sources.

"The economic analysis revealed that the costs to replace this pipeline section would far exceed its potential revenue, rendering the project uneconomic and likely resulting in higher costs being shifted to other Columbia Gas customers. Additionally, the Commission studied whether the compensation offered to the affected business owner for the transition to alternative energy sources was calculated according to established guidelines."

According to online records, an emergency order was filed in April to delay Columbia Gas from shutting off the gas at the funeral home. That request was approved for 90 days, ending on July 3.

Columbia Gas then requested a 15-day extension that was denied.

KDKA-TV reached out to Columbia Gas, which had no comment pending ongoing litigation.

"You know, in Dunbar, we're involved in a lot of activities. If we're not here, that means everything that we provide, you know, as far as support ... we have the charter for the Boy Scouts and the Cub Scouts, and we have community fest and I'm on the library board. Crystal's on the library board. We've been there for years. My husband was too. We're members of the Historical Society. The list goes on, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of things. We support the churches, the fire company, anybody that you know that has called and asked for help, if we can help them, we do. And if we're gone, that's all gone," Crouse said. 

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