Doling out oil donation proves a challenge

Native organizations work to distribute controversial gift

Posted: Thursday, December 07, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The Venezuelan oil company Citgo cut a check last month for more than $5 million dollars in a pilot program to distribute free heating fuel to Alaska's poorest communities.

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At the time, the biggest obstacle seemed to be Venezuela's brittle relationship with the U.S., punctuated when its president, Hugo Chavez, called President Bush "the devil" in a speech at the United Nations.

For Native organizations, however, doling out the unexpected donation to 12,000 households in 156 impoverished communities strewn across the state has proven to be much more difficult than rebutting the critics of Citgo's gift.

Under a contract between Citgo and the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, the eligible households cannot receive money for the fuel until all the addresses and names of the household heads in their region are compiled in a central database.

Program administrators have spent the past two months since Citgo made the offer scrambling to contact communities from Point Hope on the edge of the Chukchi Sea to Hydaburg in the southeast panhandle.

"We just want to make sure we don't miss anybody who is eligible," Lynn Zender of Zender Environmental said on Wednesday. The Anchorage-based research and consulting firm works almost exclusively with Alaska Native communities and is helping the Inter-Tribal Council and Native nonprofits in 11 regions compile the data.

The task may appear simple but, as census takers and state agencies well know, gathering information from communities with limited e-mail access that are hundreds of miles off the road system can take weeks or longer.

The phones commonly go unanswered in smaller village government offices, even on business days, because the number of residents is too low to support a full-time staff. And some villages can barely afford to pay their employees.

"The smaller the village, the more jobs people have, so you could end up talking to someone who is part of the city council and search and rescue and the school board," Zender said.

In the past few weeks, program administrators have enlisted local volunteers or officials to trudge or snowmobile from house to house in frigid weather to get the names of heads of households. A simple description of a home can serve as a surrogate address: "The red house near the airport," or "The pastor's house."

Nearly all the household information had been turned in as of Wednesday, Zender said.

But there may be more delays on the horizon, said Steve Sumida, interim director of the inter-tribal council. That includes crafting subcontracts between the tribal council and the 11 nonprofits, and forging agreements with fuel retailers in each community.

Citgo's fuel program began on Nov. 1, throughout the northeast, as well as Virginia, and will go through mid-March.

Temperatures in parts of Alaska are sliding into the teens, but many rural communities may not receive the fuel until late December or January, according to officials at several Native nonprofits. One or two of them may start receiving fuel in as soon as a week, Zender said.

"We are eager to get going on this because it's December and it would be a nice Christmas windfall," said Melanie Edwards of Kawerak Inc. The Nome-based nonprofit has collected all the information for 1,470 households in 15 communities in the Bering Strait region, where 21 degrees is considered a warm day, Edwards said.

The nonprofits will be responsible for funneling the money from the tribal council to local fuel retailers. In turn, the retailers will distribute 100 gallons of free fuel to each household, Sumida said.

Calls on Wednesday to Citgo's Houston headquarters were not immediately returned.

In an e-mail sent earlier this week, company spokesman Fernando Garay said Citgo requires "audited updates on progress every two weeks" from the inter-tribal council.

Citgo's donation to Alaska's native villages drew attention to the rampant poverty and high fuel prices, ranging from $4 to $8 a gallon, across the bulk of an often bitterly cold state.

"It's not politics. It's a heating issue," Zender said. "It can be really harsh with the prices that high."

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