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State lawmakers are pushing for answers after recent carbon monoxide issues in Southern Indiana

An emergency entrance at a hospital
Lawmakers are asking for answers after more than 100 reports of carbon monoxide and other gas issues in Southern Indiana over the Christmas holiday weekend. At least four people were hospitalized.

State lawmakers and regulators are seeking answers after multiple residents and businesses in Southern Indiana reported carbon monoxide and other gas issues over the Christmas holiday weekend.

Stephanie Hodgin of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) confirmed its Pipeline Safety Division will be inspecting the records of CenterPoint Energy, which supplies gas to Southern Indiana, to ensure “that there was compliance with applicable federal and state pipeline safety laws that the Division enforces” during the reporting period for the weekend of Dec. 24.

Clarksville Fire Chief Brandon Skaggs said the first calls started coming in around 3 a.m. Dec. 24, when two people at a home on Harrison Avenue in South Clarksville reported having chest pains. He said the department first thought it was a more routine medical issue.

“But then the calls started rolling in one after another, two to three, maybe five, 10 minutes apart from each other,” he told LPM News on Tuesday. “And before you know it, we’ve got several calls holding.”

He said the more than 100 reports, which were almost entirely in the South Clarksville area, involved either carbon monoxide detectors alerting or reports of an odd smell. At least four people were hospitalized.

Reports also came in from New Albany and Jeffersonville.

CenterPoint issued a statement to LPM News on Dec. 27, saying at that time, there was “no indication of issues with CenterPoint Energy’s natural gas system, and it continues to operate safely.”

The company said they found that “the majority of calls CenterPoint Energy responded to were due to improper appliance venting,” and that “the extreme weather, including freezing temperatures, high wind gusts and snow/ice accumulation were also contributing factors to further issues with customer appliances as their equipment was stressed during the event.”

Wind chills in the area had dropped as low as minus 30 in the days leading up to Dec. 24 and remained below freezing throughout the weekend.

CenterPoint said in the statement that they have used a propane air mix as a supplement to meet increased demand during past extreme weather events “to help safely and reliably deliver natural gas service” to customers in the area. They did not say whether the propane mix had been used during the weekend of Dec. 24.

Lawmakers ask regulators to investigate

Indiana state Reps. Ed Clere and Rita Fleming and Sens. Chris Garten and Gary Byrne issued a joint statement Dec. 27, saying they were asking the state’s regulatory commission to step in.

“We have asked the IURC to investigate what happened and, based on the results of that investigation, to hold any responsible parties fully accountable, including providing appropriate financial compensation to those who were harmed,” it reads, in part.

Clere, who represents New Albany, told LPM News on Tuesday that “clearly something happened with the gas supply,” and he wants answers because officials “don't know exactly what happened, and that's part of the problem.”

He said CenterPoint’s public statement was “meaningless.”

“Frankly, it was insulting, especially to anyone who experienced an issue and knew that something was going on,” he said. “The statement was trying to blame shift to consumers, suggesting that they weren't operating their gas appliances correctly.”

Clere also said he’s disappointed with what he called the company’s “lack of communication and lack of transparency surrounding the incident” to customers, including those who may have been at risk.

According to Clere, multiple constituents reported being told over Christmas weekend they needed to have gas appliances replaced — some of whom did, possibly unnecessarily — and others have noticed damaged appliances since the event. He said he’s heard from multiple people who said they’d experienced symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Clere said he’s going to continue to follow up with the IURC, which told him they plan to conduct field visits and gather information this week.

“I don't know whether what happened was the result of human error or mechanical error or both, but it's important that we get to the bottom of it and understand how it happened, so that measures can be put in place to keep it from happening again,” Clere said.

Rep. Fleming spoke to the Clarksville Town Council at its Tuesday meeting. She said she plans to meet with IURC officials this week for an update and urged residents to save any documentation related to medical treatment or appliance repair.

“Our residents want answers as to what caused the dangerous carbon monoxide issues which hit our community over the holidays,” Clarksville Town Council President Ryan Ramsey said in a news release Wednesday.

“The Clarksville Town Council will do everything in its power to get the answers our residents deserve, and we remain committed to holding those responsible accountable.”

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas produced from fuel used in vehicles and gas appliances. Buildup of carbon monoxide can lead to poisoning, symptoms of which include headache, dizziness, nausea, chest pain and confusion. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal to humans and pets.

Clarksville Fire Chief Skaggs said the calls related to gas issues started dropping off around 10:30 a.m. Christmas Eve, picking back up in the early afternoon before slowing again by Christmas Day.

He said the department had to call in additional firefighters and triage the severity of calls as they came in.

Skaggs worried as some of the readings they were getting in homes were high — some in the fatal range for exposure. Within a few hours, Skaggs had contacted emergency management. The town got a mass notification out to the public and soon set up an emergency command center.

Crews took readings for carbon monoxide, securing utilities and shutting off gas when necessary and moving residents to safer locations.

“My concern was, what about the people that don't have carbon monoxide detectors?” Skaggs said. “How many people are going to be sick? Are we going to have any fatalities that we don't even know about?”

By midafternoon, Skaggs said the department had received around 50 calls. That grew to more than 100 over the next day, including some who had seen the news and were concerned they had an undetected issue.

Ryan Van Velzer contributed to this report.

Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec, Inc. and the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.