LAWRENCE — Cristen Dion wondered for months when she would receive her first bill from Columbia Gas following the Sept. 13 gas fires and explosions.
Now she has two. The combined charges total $882.33, and must be paid before the end of January.
“There's no way I can pay the whole thing right away, especially because I've been out of work and going in for surgery next week,” Dion said Friday. “I have to make sure things are budgeted accordingly.”
As Columbia Gas resumes billing following the gas disaster, residents who were the least affected — like Dion, who only lost gas service to her home in the Mount Vernon district of Lawrence for about five days — are receiving retroactive bills for hundreds of dollars without warning.
The dollar amount is difficult to reconcile for Dion and others contacted by The Eagle-Tribune, as was the lack of communication from Columbia Gas preceding the bills. And the stress of having to pay so much in such little time is compounded by the fact gas bills are already higher over the winter months, as utility companies charge peak usage rates approved by the state.
“You think that everything's fine. We were 'lucky,'" Dion said. "But now, on the back end of it, the people that were 'lucky' are getting hit with these enormous bills. It doesn't make sense to me.”
In the wake of the disaster, Columbia Gas chose to put billing on hold.
"Out of an abundance of caution we delayed billing everyone in the affected area immediately after the event so that our customers — like the company — could focus on restoration. We sincerely apologize for the confusion this may have caused, and recognize we missed an opportunity to communicate with customers better," said spokesman Scott Ferson.
Billing resumed late last month for about 3,000 of the least affected customers — those whose gas service was restored within days and whose appliances were undamaged. Their bills included retroactive charges for October, November and December, Ferson said.
Those who weathered the full restoration process — spending weeks if not months without gas, having new appliances installed — will see normal month-to-month billing resume in February for charges incurred in January, the gas company said.
On Dec. 20, Dion received a retroactive bill for $374.03, due by Jan. 15. The bill included a $32.77 credit for the five days she spent without gas service after Sept. 13, and a note saying billing was delayed due to the disaster.
Then, on Jan. 2, another bill came, this one for $508.30. It's due by Jan. 28, leaving Dion to pay nearly $900 in the span of two weeks.
Dion said she's been on workers' compensation, earning about 60 percent of her regular salary as she prepares for an upcoming surgery on her neck. Her husband works in sales, on commission.
Customers like Dion, who expected to be billed once their service resumed within days, are now faced with the consequences of Columbia Gas' choice to delay billing.
"I don't think they handled it very well at all," she said.
Other customers who only lost gas for a few days, like Glen Davis of North Andover, agree.
Davis was without gas only for a few days, from Sept. 13 to 17.
In mid-December, he still had not received a bill from the company, so his wife called to inquire, only to be told there would be no retroactive billing at all.
"We were told, in fact, they weren't going to start billing until early January," he said.
They received their first bill on Dec. 31 — for $500 — accounting for gas once their service was restored.
With Columbia Gas, Davis said, it's as if "the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing."
Davis said he would have preferred the company didn't delay billing at all, "for budgeting purposes," but he was more confused because his $500 invoice does not indicate the exact time period for which he's being charged.
"They way they sent the invoice, I found it extremely confusing to figure out what month you were actually paying for," he said.
Dion, too, was perturbed by the lump-sum billing. Her bills do not clearly indicate the time periods for the charges; in some cases the only dates she can discern are for meter reads.
The charges also appear higher than what Dion thinks they should be, given what she paid for gas service about the same time last year. Her gas bill from Dec. 1, 2017, shows a month's worth of charges for $263.77.
One factor in the higher bills appears to be a bump in the cost of gas. On Dion's Dec. 20 bill, that line item rose to 82 cents per therm from 65 cents.
Columbia Gas said in the bill the increase was due to higher gas costs from suppliers.
Gas rates cover both the cost of gas supply and its distribution, and are approved by the state Department of Public Utilities, spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke said. Rates tend to rise during the peak winter season, and can fluctuate within that period depending on the price of gas, which is driven by markets and is not under the state nor Columbia Gas' control, officials said.
The most recent residential Columbia Gas rates, effective Jan. 1, appear to be higher than those for National Grid, the other main gas company servicing the region.
On Dion's Dec. 20 bill, Columbia Gas noted: “If you have any questions or need additional time to pay your bill, we are here to help.”
Columbia Gas said it will continue to offer payment plans for customers, a policy they had before the Sept. 13 incident.
Ferson said customers who contacted Columbia Gas to work out individual payment plans would not be charged a penalty for spreading out their payments.
He also cautioned residents, like Dion, who have automatic payments set up and are anticipating large bills to call the gas company to avoid having their accounts overdrawn or any other financial issues.
Dion, still processing the situation, hadn't yet called the gas company Friday morning.
“I know they're offering payment plans and whatnot, but how does that affect you on the back end for the next couple of months?” Dion said. “We don't know what the winter's going to be like, if it's going to get colder, if we're going to get a lot of snow. It's going to compound. It's just not right.”
Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakashinsky. Follow Zoe Mathews on Twitter @ZoeSMathews.