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Vitus Energy faces lawsuit over poor-performing fuel sold to customers in Bethel

A Vitus Energy fuel truck is seen in Bethel on Jan. 22, 2024.
Evan Erickson
A Vitus Energy fuel truck is seen in Bethel on Jan. 22, 2024.

Twenty-one people who say that they experienced heating system failures in Bethel due to poor-performing fuel purchased from Vitus Energy are now suing the company for damages.

The civil suit, filed in Bethel Superior Court on Jan. 17, accuses Vitus Energy of negligence, recklessness, and unfair trade practices. It requests damages in excess of $100,000.

The complaint alleges that Vitus Energy was made aware of the poor-performing fuel on Dec. 10, 2023, but failed to take the necessary steps to fix the problem before a wave of heating system failures struck Bethel around the Christmas holiday, when temperatures dropped to nearly 30 below zero Fahrenheit.

The plaintiffs are represented by Palmer-based attorney Joshua Fannon and Anchorage-based attorney Myron Angstman.

“We have learned that Vitus learned about the problem with their fuel a couple of weeks before Christmas when a customer, a knowledgeable customer, complained about the fuel,” Angstman said in an interview on Jan. 19. “And that customer had tested the fuel and found out that it was the kind of fuel that is not mixed for cold weather.”

According to the complaint, that unidentified plaintiff was then given additional fuel not suited to colder temperatures.

“Vitus came out and took out his fuel, sucked it out of the tank, and then replaced it. He tested it again; it was the same fuel, same kind of fuel,” Angstman said.

Vitus Energy sells a grade of diesel heating fuel known as “No. 1”, an Arctic-grade fuel designed to not gel or form solids at temperatures as low as 40 below zero Fahrenheit.

The complaint alleges that all 21 plaintiffs in the suit paid a premium for what they believed was heating fuel rated for colder temperatures, but was not that Arctic-grade fuel.

Vitus Energy has so far offered no specifics regarding the volume of poor-performing fuel sold to customers, but previously stated that as of Dec. 25, 2023, the company had confirmed that the poor-performing fuel was no longer being sold.

Angstman said that some details are still unclear.

“We don't know how much of it they had, or where they had it, or anything like that yet,” Angstman said. “But we know they had a problem with fuel and they continued to sell it, and they didn't notify those who had already purchased it that there might be a problem, a problem that could have been solved somewhat easily by additives.”

The additives Angstman is referring to are designed to keep diesel fuel from gelling up at extreme cold temperatures, which can lead to clogged fuel filters and heating system failures.

On Dec. 29, 2023, Vitus Energy CEO Mark Smith told KYUK that the company had been responding to affected customers with service calls to use additives to treat any remaining poor-performing fuel. At the time, Smith also said in an email that Vitus Energy was shipping an additive to “select locations where some customers may have received some portion of the fuel in question,” indicating that fuel issues were not limited to Bethel.

Angstman said that the plaintiffs that purchased the poor-performing fuel from Vitus Energy suffered significant losses and damages.

“There were people who had inches of water in their house because of the frozen pipes. We had clients who, their rentals became unusable while they were repairing these damages,” Angstman said. “And there are all kinds of different expenses because of this problem.”

Vitus Energy declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly mentioned "No. 2" as a type of heating fuel currently sold by Vitus Energy in Bethel.

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