Since the temperatures dropped in Kotzebue last week, dozens of residents have reported that their fuel is not performing properly, causing their houses to lose heat and their water lines to freeze.
Residents said that the heating fuel they purchased from Vitus Energy thickens up in frigid temperatures, clogs stove filters and stops the heating system from working — something that should not happen to Arctic-graded 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 temperatures was distributed to Bethel customers before Christmas, according to KYUK Public Media.
Vitus Energy declined to comment on the situation in Kotzebue.
What happens to the fuel
Extreme winter cold came to Kotzebue last week, with temperatures ranging between minus 20s and 30s since then. On Sunday, the temperature reached below minus 38. 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 the temperature dropped to about 25 below zero and lower, multiple residents started seeing problems with Vitus heating fuel. The fuel thickens and doesn’t flow freely, clogging up the fuel filter, Bergen said. Eventually, the filter gets so clogged up that the fuel can’t flow through it anymore, and the burner quits.
The issue seems to affect 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 Toyo stoves and the other half have boilers.
Fuel issues in Kotzebue
Resident Andrea 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 wood stove 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 and had to take time off to do so.
“We had to miss work to heat our lines and change filters,” she said.
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. After five hours of work, the heat came back, but only temporarily. Yesterday evening, Henry’s filter had gelled up again. After another filter change, the heat came back for a few hours and went out again on Sunday night.
“I had to stay home from work today to babysit our heat,” she said, “with a heat gun. 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.
Resident Garreth Howarth was among the first people in Kotzebue who noticed a problem: on Jan. 22, he saw that his Toyo stove was not working. Together with his father, Howarth shut off the fuel and cleaned the fuel screen on the pump, the flame sensor and the igniter rod.
“We figured we had fixed the problem, only to wake up Wednesday morning with it off again,” Howarth said.
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 Fuel, and said his stove has been working since then. He said that other residents who had their water lines freezing were less fortunate.
“I consider ourselves lucky,” he said.
Another Kotzebue resident, Stephen Smith Jr., also saw his fuel gelling in the filter when the temperature dropped last Thursday evening.
“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 the Vitus employee came by and mixed an anti-gel additive as well. Smith said his heater has been working for two days since then.
However, adding the anti-gel additive did not help everyone.
Clara Henry said that her Vitus fuel started gelling up in the filter last week, turning the Toyo and furnace off. She and her family had to stay up all night and put wood into the woodstove.
“We’re just lucky we have a wood stove,” she said. “If we didn’t have our woodstove, our pipes would be frozen.”
On Sunday, she said, a Vitus employee came to her house to mix in an additive in her fuel, but that didn’t solve her problem, so she reordered fuel from Crowley.
“We thought we were saving money,” she said about originally ordering from Vitus. She said that Vitus gives a discount to NANA shareholders.
The fuel issues in Kotzebue are not unique.
In Bethel, the first report of problems with Vitus heating fuel came around Dec. 10, said lawyer Myron Angstman. Around Christmas, when it got cold again, the problem became more widespread, with dozens of people reporting 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.”
Since then, Vitus started putting additives in the fuel, which “eliminated some of the trouble,” Angstman said. But in the past days, some people are 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.
“We’ve heard from eight or nine people thus far,” he said.
He said right now the lawyers are gathering information and waiting for more people to get included in the first filing of the lawsuit.
“We will try to get a lawsuit filed sooner rather than later,” he said.