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St. George Island averts frightening fuel crisis (for now)

Jill Burke
Red-legged Kittiwake colony, St. George island.
USFWS
Caribou on St. George island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
Sea lions hauled out at the base of cliffs on St. George island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
Sea lions hauled out on St. George island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
A puffin on the cliffs of St. George island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
The town of St. George on St. George Island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
Sea swells hitting the old dock in St. George.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
Fur seals hauled out on St. George island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
St. George Russian Orthodox Church.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
Pat Pletnikoff, mayor of St. George, speaking at the Arctic Imperative Summit. August 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
St. George Russian Orthodox Church, 1989.
NPS photo
Caribou antlers on St. George Island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
Sunset on St. George island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
A rainy day in St. George.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof
Tagged female sea lion, St. George island.
Courtesy Rodney W. Lekanof

Not many weeks ago, people who live on the Bering Sea island of St. George faced a frightening near-term future. Without someone to run its fuel plant, the far-flung Alaska community would be unable to receive or distribute gas and heating fuel to keep St. George running and its 99 residents warm. With winter closing in, abandoning the island seemed likely.

"We were able to avert a disastrous ending,” St. George Mayor Pat Pletnikof said this week of a one-season fix as cold winds swept over the island. “Had we not been able to reach the agreements that we have in place, it would have meant the closure of the community as we know it. Our people would have been forced to leave the island."

The fix is more an extension of the status quo than a new solution.

The city and its village corporation, St. George Tanaq Corp., have for 20 years owned and run the fuel business together. A third entity, Delta Western, supplied the fuel and provided a skilled employee to run the operation. But Tanaq and Delta Western wanted out, leaving the city scrambling to find a way to become the sole owner and operator -- or find an interested investment partner.

So far, the business relationships and ownership of assets -- like the fuel tanks -- have yet to be disentangled.

Delta Western helps out 

Recognizing this fall that St. George was in trouble, Delta Western agreed to keep its employee on the island one more winter, Pletnikoff said. And the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, a group established from commercial fishing revenue for the benefit of regional residents, helped finance the fuel purchases, he said.

As soon as the weather improves, a barge in the area will swing by and top off the community's 20,000-gallon tanks, giving St. George what Pletnikoff called "a workable solution to get us through the winter."

The island community is just one of many small, remote villages that Alaska's Department of Community and Regional Affairs monitors through its annual Fuel Watch program. The department is still waiting for a few dozen communities to provide readiness reports. But overall, things seem to be OK, said department director Scott Ruby.

Three coastal communities -- Hooper Bay, Kipnuk and Chefornak -- ran into some weather-related snags, but have found workarounds. Early freeze ups on the coast and rivers have prevented pre-arranged fuel deliveries. Hooper Bay will use an alternate distributor in the region, and Kipnuk and Chefornak will purchase fuel reserves from the school and plan for the rest of the fuel to be flown in.

No Nome rerun

Fuel issues in rural Alaska can become safety crises. Without fuel for heat, homes and public buildings will freeze. Without a warm place to stay, people are at risk.

Just last year, the nation watched nervously as such a fate washed over the Nome region in Western Alaska. A weather delay had interrupted a Nome-based distributor’s last big barge delivery of fuel for the season. Before it could get there, the sea froze.

The situation was perceived to be so critical that, in a history-making mission, the U.S. Coast Guard got the OK to deploy an icebreaker to escort a Russian-flagged fuel ship carrying fuel supplies through hundreds of miles of Bering Sea ice all the way to Nome. 

The city of Nome and Bonanza Fuel both say they have the fuel reserves they need to make it through this winter.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com