Fall fuel barge makes its last Y-K Delta village visits before freeze-up

Barges docked in Bethel. (Sunni Bean/KYUK)

The last of the villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are waiting on their fall fuel deliveries.

In Napaskiak, Teddy Sipary, who distributes fuel, had an expected delivery last week delayed to Wednesday. Akiak and Akiachak also are receiving their deliveries this week.

John Wagner, president and CEO of Vitus Energy partner Northstar Gas, said that the last of the villages, Nunapitchuk, will probably receive its fuel by the weekend. He said that Nunapitchuk is last because local buyers filled out their paperwork late.

Those final fuel deliveries will depend on the conditions of the river.

“Tides are an issue pretty much in a lot of the villages. That’s why they kind of have to wait certain days to get in there,” Wagner said. “Depending on what the water level is, and if it’s a good tide. Usually they go in there at a high tide to unload. And then they’re there a day, tide goes out, comes back in, and they can go out in the river safely.”

While the villages order and pre-pay for the fuel sometimes months in advance, that doesn’t guarantee a timely delivery.

Wagner said that there can be a lot of reasons for delays, including high winds or erosion at delivery spots. There has also been an increased number of inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard, which take time. Sometimes the barges get stuck on a sandbar or have mechanical issues. Sometimes they can’t get in touch with the person of contact, or they don’t have the right signatures or paperwork to legally deliver fuel.

“The other thing is, a good example is Quinhagak, their particular area where we used to deliver fuel was so shallow we couldn’t even get in there,” Wagner said. “So we had to run, I don’t know, 1,800 feet of hose to get fuel to their tank farm because the barge couldn’t get in because there’s so much erosion. In the river, it goes down and deposits right where they were delivering fuel before. You can’t get in there; it’s too shallow now.”

Quinhagak ran out of fuel this fall while waiting on the fuel delivery. So did Tuluksak.

Tuluksak spent last summer waiting for its spring fuel delivery from Vitus. It was expected early in June 2022, but their fuel inventory wasn’t delivered until the last week of September 2022, according to Tuluksak Tribal Administrator Angela Alexie.

“That’s way so much slower than they usually deliver the spring and fall,” Alexie said.

Over the summer of 2022, Vitus made a few small fuel deliveries to Tuluksak, but just enough to top off local tanks. Residents were told those barges were delivering fuel to other villages too, so they didn’t bring the village’s full order. By the end of September, they had only received 12,000 gallons of the local 38,000-gallon fuel purchase. Villagers had been asking where their fuel was, and why it was delayed.

“They said something about their parts being missing, or one part that they ordered came in and it was the wrong one. And then they’re saying the water was too low. And they actually came in with the water very low,” Alexie said.

The water drops as it gets colder, making it harder for the barges to navigate the river. This September the village ran low on fuel while waiting for the barge.

“There was just, like, a couple of nights that they had to keep the lights off because of no fuel or low fuel,” Alexie said. “And then, to make it worse is the corporation ran out of fuel too.”

With the village’s two main fuel sources running on empty, locals borrowed from the school before deciding to make an emergency fuel order from Top Fuel in Bethel. The barge came shortly after. Now the village has its fuel, and residents are confident that they have enough to make it until the spring of 2024, when they expect their next delivery.

In Napaskiak and Nunapitchuk, locals are hoping the barges make it out before the river starts to freeze. Wagner said that they’ve still gone out on deliveries when the barges are breaking through a couple inches of ice. After that, they’ll be out delivering again in the spring as soon as the ice goes out.

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