Bush villages scramble to find more heating oil after shipments blocked

Early freeze stopped barges from hauling in seasonal fuel shipment

Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Three villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are in a precarious position: They're trying to find enough heating oil to last them through the winter.

An early freeze and other obstacles blocked barges hauling in the villages' seasonal fuel.

Bart Agathluk, general manager for the village corporation of Emmonak, a Yup'ik community of about 800 people at the mouth of the Yukon River, told the Anchorage Daily News he's sure fuel will be flown in, but it's going to "cost like crazy."

A state report released this week said during the past 12 months, fuel costs in western Alaska rose nearly 50 percent although oil and gasoline prices dropped nationwide.

In addition to the three villages, the Emmonak Corp. says it expects to run out of heating oil to sell to local homes by the end of January unless it flies in more fuel at extra cost.

And the Kuskokwim River villages of Kwethluk and Napaskiak, near Bethel, say they face the same problem.

Scott Ruby, deputy director of the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs, says a combination of bad weather, low river depths and, late paper work in the case of Kwethluk kept the villages from getting their winter shipment in October.

Then thick ice clogged the slough into Napaskiak, forcing a barge carrying a winter's worth of heating oil to turn back in October.

"The houses were running cold and the businesses were closing their doors. It was kind of a disaster," said Phillip Nicholai, general manager of the village corporation.

An option for the villages is to ask the state for loans to cover the extra cost of sending in fuel by air or trucking the fuel across the frozen Kuskokwim River from Bethel later this winter. It's the only option for Emmonak.

Napaskiak flew in 10,000 gallons of heating fuel shortly after the barge turned back. Nicholai said it should be enough to last until the village corporation can bring more fuel by truck but raised local prices by $1.43 per gallon.

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