For the past three weeks, Ed Mitchell has been "on the phone all day, coming and going," searching for trucks and propane to feed his gas-straved city.
Mitchell, Danville's director of purchasing, said he and attorneys for the city finally found three trucks in Montevideo, Minn. - about 135 miles west of St. Paul - and propane in Hattlesburg, Miss. The biggest problem was finding the trucks, Mitchell said.
"I don't know of any left except for them," he added.
The 300,000 gallons of propane, when they arrive in Danville, will help this city of 48,000 only for about five days. As Mitchell noted, "I'm still looking for more fuel."
While Virginia residents last week coped with closed schools, set thermostats at 65 degrees and struggled to get their shopping done while stores were only open 40 hours, the residents of this factory town just above the North Carolina border wake up each morning wondering whether this is the day industries will announce they have run out of fuel needed to operate, thereby leaving thousands of people jobless.
Most firms in Danville, known as the industrial capital of Southside Virginia, are dependent on the city-owned utility for their natural gas. Danville, 240 miles southwest of Washington, has experienced gas shortages before. But with voluntary conservation measures by residents and businesses, the city was able to overcome the problem.
In the current crisis, Averett College here is begging for more natural gas so it will not have to close its doors; 35 firms have been notified they must curtail gas usage or find their own alternative fuel sources; some employees are working in rooms heated at 55 degrees.
All over this city along the Dan River, dozens of people are frantically trying to locate that resource more precious this bleak winter than any gem: fuel.
"We have one more month's worth of gas left and two more months (of winter) to go," explained James K. Turpin, city gas superintendent.
Last week schools here were closed, and churches were allowed to open with their thermostats set at 65 degrees, for only three hours. Some business last week operated four days instead of five. The schools and stores have this week resumed normal schedules.
Danville's philosophy was that it is better for the schools to close and for stores to curtail their hours than for industries to cease operating, explained Phil Chabot, an attorney for the firm that represents Danville before the Federal Power Commission.
"If the firms close, it affects the whole city. The whole town is depressed," Chabot said.
Last Thursday, the city's natural gas supplier, Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Corp. (Transco), told Danville officials that the city must change its method of operation in order to stay within its average seasonal daily allotment.
According to Turpin, the "average daily allotment" for Danville through the month of March is between 6 and 7 million cubic feet of natural gas, only half of what the city believes it needs to function normally, depending on the temperature.
"I guess this means we'll be asking (Transco) for extra emergency fuel on a daily basis," Turpin said. "We have a little (fuel) in storage, but we're about to exhaust all that."
Transco's order has left many industries uncertain at this point if there will be massive employee layoffs. First, industry leaders here said, they want time to see if they can find alternate fuel sources.
Danvill is particulary affected by natural gas shortages because it is a small industrial town largely dependent on its gas-operated textile factories for employment. When its one pipeline company severely restricts the amount of gas to be used by the factories as Transco now is doing, it hurts the city, according to Frederick H. Ritts, a partner in the law firm that represents Danville before the Federal Power Commission.
City officials said they particularly are worried about the smaller firms. Many of the major companies, such as Dan River, Inc., and Corning Glass Works, were advised by the city to buy their own natural gas two years ago, and consequently now are having fewer problems.
Richard Peltier, the plant manager for Disston Inc., said the natural gas crisis "caught us by surprise. We're a noninterruptible customer and we thought we wouldn't be affected. But that isn't valid anymore."
peltier said Disston laid off 60 employees yesterday but they will return to work Wednesday.
He said he contracted for more propane recently by locating a truck in Portland, Ore., and fuel in California and Mississippi - after he had made 150 phone calls throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The extra fuel should keep Disston, which manufactures saws and lawn care equipment, operating for three weeks, Peltier said.
Peltier said the three tankers of propane cost $17,000, but only will provide enough energy to do the same job as $4,000 worth of natural gas.
Averett College, a small private school here, also finds itself in a crisis situation.
"Our survival is at stake," said one of the college's vice presidents, O. Wendell Smith. "If we were to have to notify our students the college will be closed indefinitely, we could be in serious financial condition." Averett already has delayed the opening of its spring semester two weeks until Feb. 17, in hopes the natural gas shortage will be somewhat alleviated by then.
Averett is in a bind because it was put in the "priorty two" category of natural gas users when the listwas made in 1972, meaning that other consumers get first chance at available supplies. The school has about 1,000 students, 400 of whom live in campus dormitories.
The citizens of Danville are familiar with wintertime conservation measures, several city officials said.
"Two years ago, we had a similar crisis, though not as severe. The city launched a massive conservation effort and kept the industries going. People found out they could do with less. We've been into self-help measures for several years," gas Supt. Turpin said.
That same spirit is evident in Danville during the current crisis, ast he owners of the industrial plants, city officials, and residents all seem determined to stay optimistic. Several "emergency" meetings were held last week to deal with the gas shortage which changes almost daily, one city official noted.
"We're just hoping the weather breaks," said Gene Frankhouser, plant manager of Health-Tex Inc. His company, which manufactures children's clothes, uses a large amount of natural gas for pressing garments, and a small amount for heat.
Health-Tex now is "holding back" on its presses, and using hand irons when necessary, Frankhouser said. And, he added, "We're asking people to dress warmly, we're looking for help from the city, and we're trying to locate propane."