Contact says 'no gas' for balloons

CHRIS HYDE
Last updated 10:49 05/01/2013

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Almost a year after the Carterton ballooning tragedy, a Contact Energy decision to stop supplying propane gas to ballooning festivals has dealt another blow to an industry still in mourning.

On January 7 last year, Somerset Rd in Carterton was the scene of a fiery hot air balloon crash that claimed the lives of pilot Lance Hopping and all 10 passengers on board.

A criminal investigation was immediately launched, as well as an investigation on behalf of the coroner.

Police are still completing their inquiry, but are expected to start preparing for an inquest in the next few months.

Contact Energy said its decision to cut off the supply of propane gas was because the cost of supplying it safely to festivals was now too high for the company to justify.

The move means those bringing hot air balloons to popular local fiesta Lift Off Levin - which returns to the town this Easter - could be forced to fuel them using LPG gas from local petrol stations.

Lift Off Levin organiser Denis Hall said the fatal Carterton incident had made the past year difficult.

"The ballooning community were sort of gobsmacked at what happened," he said.

"We were shocked and we were stunned, and a year on we still really feel for the families and everyone affected. It has been our only topic of conversation in the last year."

But the deaths at Carterton had not had any impact on ballooning festivals until Contact's decision this week, he said.

"Our event [Lift Off Levin] uses so much propane that there is a possibility that if the petrol stations aren't prepared for us, we could run them dry."

The pure propane Contact used to supply was far better than LPG because it did not need to be modified in any way, Mr Hall said.

Balloons could get more horsepower and they did not need to warm the gas or pressurise it with nitrogen.

"The balloons can fly with LPG but to have to use it for an entire fiesta is a bit like turning up at a racetrack and having to use 91 unleaded."

Mr Hall was offended by the use of the Carterton tragedy as a way for Contact to justify cutting costs.

"In the email they sent me to tell me their decision they mentioned there were question marks over the safety of filling a balloon with propane following the Carterton ballooning incident," Mr Hall said.

"To use that as a reason for stopping supply of propane is like saying we are putting the price of petrol up because the All Blacks lost a game of rugby - they are completely unrelated issues.

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"It is almost as though they are using a reference to Carterton to shut us up."

Contact Energy spokesman Nicholas Robinson said the decision to stop supplying propane was commercial and had been on the table well before the Carterton tragedy.

"We looked at the costs of logistics and the costs involved in supplying propane adequately to ballooning festivals and decided it was not a good commercial decision."

It was not related to what happened at Carterton.

Mr Robinson said propane was available from other suppliers and Contact had provided details of those suppliers to organisers.

- Manawatu Standard

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