The Arctic Sounder

Kotzebue residents file lawsuit against Vitus over cold-weather fuel issues

Nine Kotzebue residents sued Vitus Energy this week after they reported issues with fuel purchased from the business earlier this winter.

It’s not the only lawsuit filed this year against Vitus for fuel problems over the winter; a different lawsuit was filed in January by a group of Bethel residents.

In January, when the temperature in Kotzebue dropped to minus 30 and below, multiple residents noticed that Vitus fuel thickened, clogged filters and stopped flowing through the heating systems. As a result, residents reported a loss of heat and frozen water lines in their homes.

Vitus declined to speak to a reporter about the fuel issues in Kotzebue in January, but around the same time, the company on their Facebook page invited Kotzebue customers experiencing cold-weather fuel issues to contact them and request additives to prevent fuel from thickening.

Mixing additives into Vitus fuel helped some customers, but others had to reorder fuel from another business or rely on their woodstoves for heat.

This week, nine Kotzebue residents filed a complaint in the Superior Court in Kotzebue, accusing Vitus of negligence, recklessness and unfair trade practices.

“The heating failures caused a variety of harm including but not limited to frozen pipes, damaged heating units, repair costs, interrupted family activities, displacement from households, lost rental income, loss of wages from missed employment, and replacement costs for the fuel and increased heating costs for emergency heaters used to keep houses warm,” according to the court complaint.


A Vitus official said the company won’t comment on the lawsuit.

“If there’s a complaint that’s filed, if it’s an ongoing litigation, we won’t be able to make any comment on that,” Vitus’ Director of Sales Mike Poston said.

Kotzebue was not the first place in Alaska where residents noticed problems with Vitus fuel this winter.

In December, when the temperature in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta was about zero, a Bethel customer notified Vitus of a similar issue: Fuel was clogging the filter because of crystals forming in the fuel, said the complaint filed by the Bethel residents. The customer tested the fuel, discovered that it was not cold weather-rated, and asked Vitus to replace it, according to the complaint. Vitus replaced the fuel, but the weather in the area warmed up and the issue went away until late December, the complaint said.

Just before Christmas, the temperature in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta dropped again, and multiple Bethel customers reported heating issues. Vitus confirmed that some amount of poor-performing fuel was sold to customers in Bethel, KYUK Public Media reported.

At the end of January, 21 Bethel residents filed a complaint against Vitus.

“All plaintiffs received the type of fuel not rated for colder temperatures, despite paying for the type of fuel rated for lower temperatures, which is significantly higher priced,” the complaint filed by Bethel residents said.

In the Kotzebue complaint, plaintiffs asserted that Vitus was negligent when the company did not ensure that the fuel they delivered was rated for cold weather use. They also asserted that, after Bethel residents had issues with fuel in December, Vitus was reckless by continuing to deliver improper fuel to other customers. Vitus sold “the wrong type of heating oil at an inflated price which is an unfair or deceptive practice,” the Kotzebue complaint said.

The Kotzebue plaintiffs are asking for $100,000 in compensation for the damages. Bethel plaintiffs are asking for the same amount.

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.