ANCHORAGE - Alaska villages are finally receiving a much-criticized donation of heating fuel from Venezuelan oil company Citgo.
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More than 11,000 homes in rural Alaska are eligible for 100 gallons each as part of Houston-based Citgo's pledge to donate 1 million gallons of heating fuel to poor Americans.
More than 150 Alaska villages took advantage of the offer and residents began receiving vouchers for the fuel late last month. The vouchers can be redeemed at local fuel stores.
"It was a great way to start the new year," said Gambell resident Jennifer Apatiki, whose husband hauled home a 55-gallon drum of free heating oil shortly after Christmas.
Citgo's $5.2 million gift drew a barrage of criticism because of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's combative attitude toward U.S. policy, particularly after he called George Bush the "devil" in a speech at the United Nations. Citgo is owned by the Venezuela government.
Because of Chavez's political views, Citgo's offer was refused by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, a Native regional nonprofit corporation representing four eligible villages.
People in Gambell, a Yup'ik village of 660 on St. Lawrence Island, need the money more than they care about the politics, Apatiki said.
"Devil, angel, whoever gave it to us, we're grateful," she said.
Heating fuel costs $4.65 a gallon in Gambell. Apatiki said she's spending more than $600 a month to heat her three-bedroom home despite relatively warm temperatures this winter.
Coordinators of the giveaway, led by the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, had hoped vouchers would reach villages by Nov. 1. But Citgo needed paperwork verifying addresses and head of households for every home in more than 150 villages. That's an enormous undertaking in many remote areas, said Steve Sumida of the tribal council.
Native nonprofit corporations led the effort in their regions. In some areas volunteers went door-to-door verifying identification and addresses, Sumida said.