After 5-month wait forces fuel rationing, barge arrives in St. Paul

A fuel barge in deep blue water
The North Pacific Fuel barge arrived in St. Paul Tuesday. The small community had been waiting on its arrival since November of last year. (Phil Zavadil)

Fuel rationing in the Pribilof Island community of St. Paul ended Tuesday after more than a month and a half of restrictions for residents and fishermen.

City officials announced the ration in late February after bad weather repeatedly canceled the arrival of a fuel barge. 

The North Pacific Fuel barge finally arrived at the dock on Tuesday, according to City Manager Phil Zavadil. The city had been waiting on its arrival since November of last year. 

“I think we’ve been expecting it each month and then it didn’t arrive because of weather and timing with delivery to other communities,” he said.  

In late February, the island of 370 residents got down to just 1,200 gallons of usable gasoline. Zavadil said they had to ship in 55-gallon drums and ration locals to five gallons per vehicle each week. 

“It’s been rough on people because they weren’t able to get out and drive,” he said. “And having to plan how you’re going to get to the store, to school, go to work and do all that on five gallons a week — it’s been rough for some.” 

Then about a month ago, St. Paul also got low on diesel fuel. That’s the fuel used to power the town, and Trident Seafoods’ fish processing plant — which nearly doubles the island’s population.

Zavadil said the city also had to limit fuel to crab boats, and later cut them off completely, forcing crews to travel hundreds of miles out of their way to refuel.  

“That impacted those vessels, where in some cases, they might have delivered crab down to Unalaska or Akutan instead of here because they couldn’t get fuel here,” he said.

In his 20-plus years on the island, Zavadil’s seen at least two other fuel shortages, where the city limited gas to locals and prices rose to $13 a gallon.

But that’s part of living 800 air miles from Anchorage, he said, with over 300 miles of open water between them and mainland Alaska. 

Because of St. Paul’s remote location, Zavadil — who also serves as the island’s volunteer fire chief — said he encourages locals to have extra food and supplies on hand. 

RELATED: St. Paul enters ‘hunker down’ after detecting first COVID-19

“It’s part of living out in the location that we do,” he said. “It’s not the easiest to get to, and then we have our challenges with weather — like most other places in Alaska. So I always try to encourage people to plan ahead and think about what if something were to happen? Are you prepared for that?”

Zavadil said he thinks the island now has enough gasoline to get them through the end of the year, but he’s already thinking about their next supply of diesel and preparing for the next crabbing season. 

Meanwhile, a “hunker down” order on the island is set to expire Thursday at 6 p.m. Officials implemented the order after the small community confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on April 1 — more than a year after the pandemic arrived in the state. 

No one else in the community has tested positive for the virus since then, according to Zavadil. 

“We’re essentially COVID-free again, but we have one case on our record now,” he said.

Nonessential businesses will be allowed to reopen Friday, and students will be able to return to their classrooms for the first time in two weeks, Zavadil said. 

The St. Paul City Council is scheduled to consider a new ordinance next week that would exempt fully vaccinated people from quarantining. They would still be required to social distance and wear masks.  

“I think that’ll be a relief to some people that are traveling for medical and other reasons —  not having to come back and do that strict quarantine and have a little more freedom to move around,” he said. 

About 48% of the island is already vaccinated, according to Zavadil. Officials are planning a raffle with prizes including a four-wheeler, king crab and a round-trip plane ticket to incentivise more eligible St. Paul islanders to get their shots. 

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