Since temperatures in Kotzebue dropped last week into the minus 30s, dozens of residents have reported that their fuel isn’t performing properly, causing their homes to lose heat and water lines to freeze.
Residents said that the heating fuel they purchased from Vitus Energy thickens up in frigid weather, clogs stove filters and stops their heating systems from working — something that shouldn’t happen to Arctic-grade fuel meant for use in Alaska winter.
The reports come a month after Vitus Energy CEO Mark Smith confirmed that some amount of home heating fuel not suited to extreme cold was distributed to Bethel customers before Christmas, according to KYUK Public Media.
Vitus Energy declined to comment on the situation in Kotzebue in response to a reporter’s questions. On Monday, the company said on their Facebook page that Kotzebue customers experiencing cold-weather fuel issues can contact them and request additives to prevent fuel from thickening.
Fuel issues in Kotzebue
Harsh winter cold arrived in Kotzebue last week, with temperatures ranging between the minus 20s and minus 30s since then. On Sunday, the temperature reached 40 degrees below zero. City Manager Tessa Baldwin said the cold has led to frozen water lines across Kotzebue and prevented the city from providing such services as garbage pickup and snow removal.
“It hasn’t been cold like this in a couple of years,” said resident Matt Bergen.
Since temperatures dropped, multiple residents started experiencing problems with their Vitus heating fuel.
The issue seems to affect the popular Toyostoves by Toyotomi, known as Toyos, as opposed to boiler stoves that have a fuel pump and seem to be doing fine, Bergen said. He estimated that about half the people in Kotzebue have Toyostoves and the other half have boilers.
Andrea Henry was among the residents who experienced the problem. Henry ordered 100 gallons of Vitus fuel on Jan. 25, and her heating stopped working the next morning.
“It got super cold downstairs,” she said. “Thankfully, we have a woodstove upstairs. My 82-year-old grandmother and my three kids just stayed upstairs till we got the heat going.”
“We had to slowly run cold water to keep (water lines) from freezing,” she added.
Henry and her family spent hours trying to fix the heating issues. First, Henry’s boyfriend changed the filter and copper tubing in the heater and poured a popular anti-gel additive called Diesel 911 into the fuel. The heat came back temporarily, until on Sunday evening, the filter had gelled up again. Another filter change brought a few hours of heat until the system went out the same night.
“I had to stay home from work today to babysit our heat ... with a heat gun,” Henry said Monday. “Right now, we have heat tape wrapped around our lines but that’s still not working.”
Henry said Vitus did not return her calls to address the issue.
Another Kotzebue resident, Stephen Smith Jr., also saw his fuel gelling in the filter when the temperature dropped last Thursday.
“The fuel was like molasses on the bottom when I stirred the fuel,” he said.
Smith’s filter was new, and he first thought that the issue was caused by a frozen fuel line, so he spent some time trying to thaw it out.
“All happened at night so slept little for two days,” he said. “Woodstove saved me!”
Smith said he added Diesel 911 to his fuel. Then a Vitus employee came by and mixed in an anti-gel additive as well. Smith said his heater has been working for two days since then.
Resident Garreth Howarth was among the first people in Kotzebue who noticed the fuel issue affecting Toyostoves. Together with his father, Howarth shut off the fuel and cleaned the fuel screen on the pump, the flame sensor and the igniter rod. The next morning, they woke up with the heat off again.
Howarth then changed his filter — and quickly saw that it clogged up again.
“Seeing the color of the filter and the slime-like texture on it, I knew something wasn’t right,” he said.
Howarth ended up ordering fuel from Vitus’ competitor, Crowley Fuels, and said his stove has been working since then.
Clara Henry, who also reordered fuel from Crowley after experiencing problems with Vitus fuel in her stove, said that Vitus Energy gives a discount to NANA shareholders.
“We thought we were saving money,” she said.
The fuel issues in Kotzebue are not unique.
In Bethel, the first report of problems with Vitus heating fuel arrived around Dec. 10, said lawyer Myron Angstman. Around Christmas, when it got cold again, dozens of people reported that their fuel wasn’t functioning properly and was causing issues with their heating and plumbing systems.
“It was discovered that this fuel was the wrong kind of fuel for extreme cold temperatures,” Angstman said. “Vitus has acknowledged that somehow — and we don’t know how yet — but somehow, they did get a batch of non-extreme-cold-weather fuel, and it went around Bethel and the villages.”
After the problem became more widespread, Vitus started putting additives in the fuel, which “eliminated some of the trouble,” Angstman said. But in recent days, some people have been reporting the issues again, he said.
“Now we’re having cold weather again here in Bethel, and the problem is reemerging,” he said. “This fuel is, in our view, pretty widespread and it’s not clear to us how extensive the damage is.”
Last Friday, Angstman started hearing about similar issues in Kotzebue, with about eight people reaching out to him. He said right now, lawyers are gathering information and waiting for more people to be added to the first filing of a complaint against Vitus.
“We will try to get a lawsuit filed sooner rather than later,” he said.