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Powerless in their own homes

WATERLOO: A series of power outages has affected residents at the Turanga building, with two tenants taken to hospital as a direct result. The three outages occurred on May 17, June 1 and June 8 between 2.30pm and 7.30pm (five hours) 10.45am and 2.30am (18 hours) and 10.55am and 3.30am (16.5 hours) respectively. Residents were also informed that power would be cut to the building while Ausgrid re-connected the source on June 12 between 8am and 4pm.

The Turunga Building in Waterloo (Photo: John Lanzky)
The Turanga Building in Waterloo (Photo: John Lanzky)

As a result of the power cuts residents faced a number of issues, most concerning the lack of access to proper respiratory equipment. Other difficulties residents faced included no access to functioning toilet facilities, no lights or lift access, as well as no access to water throughout the duration of the outages. On June 1, 15 residents were stuck on the ground floor of the tower complex without food or water.

A spokesperson for the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) has said that efforts were made to alleviate inconveniences for affected residences during the power cuts. “The Department … is aware of a power supply problem on May 17, 2014. FACS was first notified of a power supply problem at approximately 3pm. A contractor attended the site and Ausgrid restored power by 7.30pm. The Department monitored the situation and was on standby to attend the site if needed.”

A spokesperson from Ausgrid confirmed the power outages on May 17, yet stated the cuts did not affect the entire block of apartments: “About 4.45pm Ausgrid was notified by a customer’s electrician of a loss of supply to the block with about 40 apartments affected … it was only affecting a small part of the building. Yes, it may have been some common areas. Emergency crews went out and did checks. We were unable to identify the cause of the fault and safely restored power at 7.30pm.”

FACS has also commented on the blackouts during June 1: “The Department … was made aware of the outage on June 1, and staff attended the premises. The outage was due to a problem with Ausgrid, which is also the authorised repair agent. Staff organised temporary accommodation and assistance for tenants where required.”

Concern for the wellbeing of the tenants was expressed at a Waterloo Wellbeing & Safety Action Group meeting held at The Factory Community Centre in Raglan Street. Issues raised included the state of the backup generators and why they were not utilised during the blackout period. In the case of a fire occurring in the building, would residents have been alerted by smoke alarms and would there have been adequate access to water?

In regards to the lack of generators used during the outages, the FACS spokesperson said: “Onsite generators are hired on an as-needed basis during outages.”

Laura Kelly of the Housing Communities Program at The Factory said: “To date there has been no apology to the tenants from Housing NSW or Ausgrid for the major inconvenience this has caused on both occasions.”

When asked about the power outages at Turanga, the Ausgrid spokesperson said that there are times “in your own home when you might trip the safety switch and it might cut the power off; something like that may have happened from inside the building”. After investigating the matter, the spokesperson confirmed that there was a power outage in Waterloo on June 1.

The spokesperson said Ausgrid received a call at 1.20pm on June 1 to attend to a fault on a customer’s power line at Cope Street, Waterloo (adjacent to Phillip Street, where Turanga is located). “We went out and we worked with the customer’s electrician to find the location of the fault, and we understand that a generator was then connected. At what time? We don’t know,” he said. “There was a fault on what we call the customer’s main, basically the customer’s equipment or in this case an underground power-line that supplies one of the blocks there,” he said. “We estimate that about a hundred apartments were affected. It wasn’t the whole block, it was only about a hundred apartments.”

In regards to lifts being inactive, the spokesperson said that Ausgrid has no control over how the power outage affects individual parts of the block. “How customers wire up their place we have no idea. Whether it’s your home or an apartment block, we won’t know. But in this case we know part of the supply was affected so clearly if the lifts weren’t working it’s that part of the common supply that’s been cut. We don’t have any visibility of that though, obviously, it’s how things are configured at their end.”

The Ausgrid spokesperson could not confirm for how long both the Turanga Tower and surrounding areas were without power, and there was no comment made regarding the residents affected by the power cuts.

The Waterloo Neighbourhood Advisory Board wrote a letter seeking external assistance from Housing NSW regarding the power supply faults. The letter specifically addressed the power cuts during the weekend of June 8: “There was a failure of the electricity distribution system within the Turanga building during the weekend of June 7 and 8 that lasted in excess of 24 hours. The failure was the second that has occurred after major work was done on the electricity distribution system within the building. The unresolved outage immediately resulted in the lifts not working and inability to cook food or even boil a kettle to make a cup of tea. As time progressed it led to: failure of the water reticulation system within the building leading to lack of water to individual apartments within two hours; failure of the emergency lighting system and evacuation signs within the building within two and a half hours.”

The letter was forwarded to the Minister, Gabrielle Upton, on June 17. To date there has been no response from Housing NSW, the NSW Lands and Housing Corporation or the Minister.

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