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Monday 5 October 1998

The story so far ... the gas crisis

The explosion at Longford and the days that followed:

Friday 25 September: At 12.30pm, a series of explosions cause three separate fires at Esso's Longford plant 1. The flow of gas through the ESSO-BHP pipes in Bass Strait to the Longford plant is stopped. This link supplies about 80 per cent of Victoria's gas. Residents living within five kilometres of the plant are evacuated. The State Government gives Victorian Energy Network Corporation (VENCorp), the state's gas supply authority, the power to ensure that supplies for essential services are made. VENCorp makes public announcements urging households and industry to turn off all gas appliances. The pump price of liquid petroleum gas rises. After 7pm one body is found and a second employee is still missing at the Longford plant. Eight others are hurt. Hundreds of firefighters are still fighting the fire.

Saturday 26 September: VENCorp orders all homes and businesses in Victoria to turn off gas mains. It is now illegal to use any gas appliances. The only areas not effected are Warrnambool, Hamilton and Portland which do not obtain their gas supply from Longford. Restrictions are placed on the sale of LPG with a $20 limit per customer. Hospitals cancel or defer elective surgery as they try to ration gas supplies; arrangements are made for laundry to be transported interstate; electric-powered sterilisation units are provided by the Australian Defence Force. Cremations are postponed. Food eateries without electric or barbecue facilities can offer only limited services. Dairy farmers are forced to pour milk down the drain as machinery in the pasteurisation process rely on gas. The State Government in conjunction with local councils looks at providing assistance under the disaster plan to frail and elderly residents. The bodies of maintenance supervisor John Lowery and Peter Wilson are identified. The Premier, Mr Jeff Kennett, demands a full explanation of the explosion from Esso and gives a deadline of noon on Monday. Esso announces it cannot predict when the fire would be extinguished or when gas supplies could be resumed.

Sunday 27 September: Four thousand SES and CFA volunteers turn off supplies to 1.3 million customers. VENCorp announces that fines of $500 would be issued if people ignored the bans. Retailers report a big demand for electrical cooking and heating appliances. Panic buying of food is evident. Mr Kennett announces that this crisis is "going to affect this state dramatically" but declares that the $4 billion gas privatisation will go ahead and there were no plans to review whether most of the state's gas supply should come from one place. Car manufacturers Ford and Toyota announce a total of 7000 stand-downs as machinery is brought to a halt. It is estimated that Melbourne's restaurants could have lost more than $9 million during the Grand Final weekend. AGL, which owns the gas link with NSW, can pump enough gas across the border to provide Victoria with 2 per cent of its gas requirements, enough to meet emergency needs. The fire at plant 1 is finally contained. Plants 2 and 3 at Longford cannot begin operation because pipes common to all three plants have been damaged. Arson squad detectives begin investigating.

Monday 28 September: Mr Kennett promises an inquiry and the Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, promises federal assistance. Mr Kennett says Victorians can expect to go without gas for two weeks and services would have to be restored gradually, although no decision is made about businesses or households having priority. Restrictions were likely to remain until well into 1999. Car manufacturers as well as food processors and workers in the metal industries are stood down or forced to take annual leave. Local councils open showers at oval and sporting venues. Meals on wheels is extended to health card holders dependent on gas. Bread is transported from interstate bakeries. Esso announces it will build a pipe to bypass plant 1 to allow gas to flow to plants 2 and 3. There are 210 people working on the plant including Esso workers, contract workers and CFA volunteers. Esso has brought in 20 experts from Esso operations around the world to supplement the teams working at Longford.

Tuesday 29 September: Five thousand workers in the car manufacturing industries in Adelaide and Sydney do not have work as they rely on components from Melbourne. Bread and milk are rationed in supermarkets. Many banks allow customers who have been stood down to postpone credit card payments, access money from their term deposits without incurring penalties and change schedules in home-loan repayments. The police commissioner, Mr Neil Comrie, warns that residents turning on their gas mains could face fines of up to $10,000 and companies face $100,000 penalties. Offenders will be the last to be reconnected when normal supplies are resumed. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will be monitoring the price of LPG. An explosion destroys the front of a Malvern restaurant due to leaking gas from an LPG cylinder. Albury-Wodonga's abattoir closes causing 200 jobs to be suspended. Two law firms issue writs in the Federal Court to recover losses for businesses, consumers and workers affected by the gas crisis. The action is against VENCorp and Esso and six other companies that have contracts to distribute gas. Esso plans to reconnect supplies of raw gas from Bass Strait to parts of the Longford site.

Wednesday 30 September: Controlled burning begins at the Longford plant to get rid of surplus gas. Inspectors have found more than 347 people who have been using gas illegally. The Office of Fair Trading receives complaints of suspected profiteering. On a visit to Perth, Mr Kennett praises Victorians for working together as a community but says that he doesn't know what Victorians are whingeing about as people could survive without services being on tap all the time. Hostels for the aged and community residential units for the disabled as well as people in exceptional circumstances are allowed to use gas for hot water units and cooking.

Thursday 1 October: The State Government decides that industry will have access to gas before domestic users in a move to get employees back to work as soon as possible. Esso hopes to begin operational tests at the Longford plant in the next two days. Plant 2 and 3 are capable of meeting the state's summer gas demand but plant 1 will be needed to maintain winter supply. 413 people have been caught using their gas supply illegally and have had their meters disconnected or removed. Victoria's textile industry says that more than 2000 employees had been stood down. The federal Opposition Leader, Mr Kim Beazley, pledges that if Labor is elected he would look into Victoria's gas problems as this crisis is a national emergency.

Friday 2 October: More than 1000 people attend requiem Mass for plant supervisor Peter Wilson held in Sale's St Mary's Cathedral. Esso reports good progress being made towards reactivating Plant 2. The Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, announces a $100 million relief fund to be used for immediate social security payments to stood-down workers, to assist groups helping the elderly and sick, and to offset the cost to business of converting to non-gas energy.

Saturday 3 October: Mr Kennett says domestic users will not be reconnected until Thursday at the earliest. Large commercial industries could have some return of gas supplies by Monday, he told a press conference. He said there would be a massive advertising campaign advising Victorians how to reconnect. Esso says repressuring of Plant 2 was proceeding on a step-by-step schedule. VENCorp says 383 domestic users and 68 businesses have defied the ban to date. About 1000 mourners fill St Mary's Cathedral at 11am to farewell John Lowery, a committed CFA volunteer and Esso's acting maintenance supervisor. Sunday 4 October: Premier Kennett says gas may once again flow to some Victorian industries on Monday, but he warns householders not to use gas supplies until told to do so - which would be at least Thursday.


Published by The Age Online Pty Ltd ACN 069 962 885 )1998 David Syme & Co Ltd

-- Rainy Day (, February 15, 1999


An interesting point:

No reports of social unrest. Why? Because around them the world is still going on. The programs are still on the telly, the radios are still working. And, there are enough constables to effect the draconian orders, because we're NOT talking about an un-restricted area like a whole country.

Any other comments.

Besides asking what the point is, BTW.


-- Chuck, night driver (, February 16, 1999.

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