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Upriver communities join Bethel in search for answers regarding poor-performing heating fuel purchased from Vitus

A fuel filter containing thickened "No. 1" diesel heating fuel purchased from Vitus Energy is seen outside of a home in Bethel on Dec. 26, 2023.
Jim Chaliak
A fuel filter containing thickened "No. 1" diesel heating fuel purchased from Vitus Energy is seen outside of a home in Bethel on Dec. 26, 2023.

In the wake of reports of widespread heating system issues related to gelling fuel in Bethel and multiple communities along the Kuskokwim River, Vitus Energy has offered few specifics regarding poor-performing fuel sold to customers sometime before Christmas.

In an emailed statement on Dec. 29, Vitus CEO Mark Smith said the company is responding to complaints from affected customers with service calls to treat any remaining fuel, and that it is shipping an additive to “select locations where some customers may have received some portion of the fuel in question.”

The company did not say which communities were being sent the anti-gel fuel additive, but multiple people on Facebook have reported gelling issues in the middle Kuskokwim River community of Sleetmute and as far upriver as McGrath, where temperatures reached nearly 45 below zero on Christmas. Power utilities for both villages currently use diesel fuel purchased from Vitus.

Steve Graham, maintenance director for the Iditarod Area School District – comprising seven schools on both the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers – said that schools in McGrath and Takotna heated with fuel purchased from Vitus had both faced issues with fuel gelling since Christmas.

Graham was able to keep heating systems running at the school in McGrath using a popular additive called Diesel 911. He said on Dec. 30 that he was expecting a shipment of another effective anti-gel additive from Vitus sometime in the coming days, and that he was pleased with the company’s response time.

In Bethel, a sales assistant at NAPA Auto Parts, one of the few places in town selling Diesel 911, said the store had sold out of its stocks within an hour of opening on the day after Christmas.

On Dec. 29, Bethel resident Susan Taylor called into KYUK’s Talkline show to share what she had heard about people’s holiday heating woes.

“I think every furnace repair person in this town spent Christmas day away from their family addressing these calls they were getting,” Taylor said.

Anchorage-based lawyer Myron Angstman is currently gathering accounts from people who were sold the poor-performing fuel in preparation for a potential civil suit against Vitus.

Angstman responded by phone on Dec. 30 regarding the company’s assertions that it believed it was selling “No. 1” heating fuel as advertised. No. 1 is an Arctic-grade diesel heating fuel with a temperature at which fuel begins to gel or form solids – known as a “cloud point” – as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The people in the Delta who have this problem did not deal with the folks overseas or out of state, they dealt with Vitus. And so that's who they will make their claim against, at the outset at least,” Angstman said.

Some have speculated that some customers were already aware of the poor-performing Vitus fuel prior to the spike in heating system issues that coincided with the Christmas cold snap. Bethel resident Fritz Charles, who said he had incurred expenses dealing with the gelling fuel at his home, also called in to KYUK’s Talkline to share his frustration.

“Some of the people knew about the bad fuel issue in the past, but the majority of the people didn't know it was going to get this ridiculously out of hand, out of control. And that is all on Vitus,” Charles said. “If they're willing to at least cover the expenses that the homeowners spent, you know, it's a small price on Vitus, that would be the only right thing to do.”

In a phone call on Dec. 31, Smith said Vitus had a clearer picture of the source and volume of the poor-performing fuel, but declined to offer specifics. Smith said the company was actively following up with all the affected customers they are currently aware of.

In an emailed statement, state Rep. C.J. McCormick said he had been in contact with Vitus and that his office was working to better understand the situation. He encouraged residents of Bethel and communities along the Kuskokwim River to contact him at 907-465-4942 with any information.

Customers affected by gelled fuel can call Vitus Energy at 907-570-8413.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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