Tough Choices for Local Heating Oil Head
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Yesterday, the Senate passed legislation to help people with their skyrocketing heating bills. For many Northeast lawmakers, though, the supplements to the Heating Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, weren't nearly what they were hoping for. Nighttime temperatures are sinking below zero in many areas there, and residents are struggling to keep warm. Gregory Warner of North Country Public Radio reports from the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
(Soundbite of engine)
GREGORY WARNER reporting:
Since 1941, the Gordon family has been delivering heating oil to the small towns of the Adirondack Mountains, and John Gordon remembers when customers were actually happy to see his truck pull in.
Mr. JOHN GORDON (Heating Oil Deliveryman): And I've noticed throughout the years that when I was delivering, somebody would always have, like, cookies or a pie or a bottle of liquor or something like that for Christmas. And this year, we've got, like, one plate of cookies and that's it.
WARNER: These days, the oil man can be an unwelcome messenger. We pull into the driveway of a two-family home. John unwinds the hose and drags it through the snow. A woman in a faded robe comes out onto the porch. She looks to be in her mid-60s, and lives alone.
Mr. GORDON: OK, that didn't fill the tank. So keep an eye on it.
Unidentified Woman: Oh, I know. That hardly touches it.
Mr. GORDON: Make sure you apply for emergency within a couple weeks.
Unidentified Woman: Well, see, we got that in October.
Mr. GORDON: Oh, you used the emergency already?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah, remember...
WARNER: He advices her to apply for help from the Heating Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP.
Mr. GORDON: You've used everything up, so...
Unidentified Woman: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. GORDON: ...you better make some phone calls.
Unidentified Woman: Yeah, I'm going to try.
Mr. GORDON: OK.
Unidentified Woman: Thanks.
WARNER: It's not clear who she might call. Gordon suggests her church or a Red Cross chapter. Some towns have had local fund-raisers, but Gordon admits the problem is bigger. About a fifth of his 2,500 customers are facing a similar crisis.
Mr. GORDON: What are they going to do when it gets really cold? You know, this is not even Christmas, yet they've used up their money. So they're either going to be burning some woodstoves trying to stay warm, probably some electric heat, heating with their ovens. But I can't afford to carry them anymore.
WARNER: In this part of New York, January and February temperatures can drop to 30 or 40 below zero at night. Some resort to space heaters and electric blankets to keep warm. Others are living off the can, buying just enough kerosene from the gas station to feed their furnaces for the night. Rod Dockem(ph) runs a nearby Getty station.
Mr. ROD DOCKEM (Getty Station Operator): This year in particular they've gone from, you know, the usual five gallons for a monitor heater to doing it on their furnaces, pouring it in their barrels because they're empty. They're barrels are empty. And, well, if you're going to heat your house, it's going to cost you about $15, $16 a day.
WARNER: It'll be $20 by midwinter. And furnaces run that close to empty tend to break down, and that gets expensive. Rod Dockem says that people try to buy just enough to make it through the night.
Mr. DOCKEM: What's happening the first time since I've been in business is I'm starting to get calls at home after I close at night. Thanksgiving, I was open until 10:00 and it was from 11 to about 2 I received about four calls for kerosene, for people to come down to get kerosene.
WARNER: Rod doesn't answer those calls, and neither will the fuel companies. Oil dealers in the area all told me they can't afford to fill the small orders or accept credit, so people are making sacrifices.
Ms. GRACE BUSHY(ph) (Heating Oil Consumer): And nobody comes in and cleans the house anymore, and I can't. And we don't go very many places. Christmastime, I make a lot of the gifts now where I used to buy a few things.
Grace Bushy sits at her kitchen table, piled high with papers. She says at least she's doing better than one elderly neighbor.
Ms. BUSHY: She's a widow. She don't have money enough to cover her fuel, so what she was doing was turning her heat down to 50 because if she runs out of oil, her pipes freeze and everything. So...
WARNER: How can you even--I mean, at 50, that's not warm at all.
Ms. BUSHY: You put a sweater on! A lot of sweaters.
WARNER: In a way, Grace is lucky. She's been buying oil from the Gordon family for so many decades that they trust her with credit when she needs to get by. But when you've worked all your life, she says, who wants to have to be trusted? For NPR News, I'm Gregory Warner in Canton, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.