By ALEX deMARBAN
Anchorage Daily News
January 15, 2007
In Gambell, Jennifer Apatiki's husband hauled home a 55-gallon drum of free heating oil shortly after Christmas. The fuel, courtesy of Citgo, kept her warm in subzero temperatures in recent days.
"It was a great way to start a new year," she said.
As part of its program to donate heating fuel to poor Americans, Citgo, headquartered in Houston, Texas, pledged this year to give away 1 million gallons of heating fuel in Alaska Native villages. More than 11,000 homes are eligible for 100 gallons each. The $5.2 million gift drew a hail of criticism from people around the country because of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's combative attitude toward U.S. policy, especially after he called George Bush the "devil" in a speech at the United Nations. The Venezuela government owns Citgo.
The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, a Native regional nonprofit corporation representing four eligible villages, chose not to participate because of Chavez's political views.
More than 150 villages took advantage of the offer, however, and residents in many villages began receiving vouchers for the fuel late last month. They can redeem those vouchers at their local fuel store.
Apatiki said people in Gambell, a Yup'ik village of 660 on St. Lawrence Island, need the money more than they care about the politics.
"Devil, angel, whoever gave it to us, we're grateful," she said.
Heating fuel costs $4.65 a gallon in the Western Alaska village, she said. Despite relatively warm temperatures this winter, Apataki said she's spending more than $600 a month to heat her three-bedroom home.
Gas, food and other necessities are also "ridiculously expensive," so many people are scratching by, she said. Hunters have butchered and shared a few walruses, helping offset some costs. But the subsistence food only goes so far. The fuel gift, worth about $465 per household, will free up money for store-bought food.
"This really, really helped the entire village," she said.
Organizers of the massive giveaway, led by the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, had hoped vouchers would reach villages by Nov. 1. But Citgo needed paperwork verifying addresses and head of households for every home in more than 150 villages, an enormous undertaking in many remote areas, said Steve Sumida of the tribal council.
The wait has been an "emotional roller-coaster," with villagers calling daily to say they can't afford heating fuel, Sumida said. The tribal council expects the program to continue next year, he said.
Life is extremely expensive there, said retiree Grant Ballot. People are having to travel miles to get wood for burning or to kill a caribou, and gas runs about $5 a gallon.
Ballot said he didn't want the fuel gift because of Chavez's politics, but his wife convinced him they needed the money. They're barely making it at times, he said. She's a teacher at the local school, and her paycheck was severely reduced by the recent holiday break, he said. The fuel will last about a month.
"Without this (help), we would have been in a world of hurt again," he said.
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