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Fuel oil program praised for aiding many poor tribes

HELENA, Mont. - CITGO Petroleum Corp. came to the rescue of thousands of American Indian families in the Great Plains this past winter with a donation that assisted with the cost of heating homes during a sometimes brutal winter season.

Help for the American Indians was specially requested by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The Rocky Boy's Reservation in Montana, which received $141,000 from the Venezuelan corporation, sent an open letter praising Chavez for helping more than 500 families survive the cold.

Many reservation homes in the Great Plains were without power, propane or heating fuel at a time when the temperatures plummeted to below zero and winds drove the cold to more dangerous levels.

Poverty prevents many people from keeping their fuel tanks filled, and power companies cut off electricity to homes when bills are not paid. The reservations that received the donation are all listed as having high poverty rates due to a lack of employment potential.

On the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, one of the recipients of CITGO's donation, 1,300 families normally receive funds from the Low Income Heating Assistance Program. The LIHEAP, normally backed by federal funds, came up empty because of two continuing resolutions, one passed by the new Congress. Some reservations' LIHEAP funds were exhausted prior to the CITGO donation.

CITGO provided $2 million in relief for 10 tribes in South Dakota and Montana. This is the second year of the program, which started in the northeastern United States and then moved to the Midwest and Great Plains. Some 150 tribes in Alaska also benefited.

CITGO answered the call from six members of Congress after Hurricane Katrina damaged much of the oil industry infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to higher prices for those in the most need.

''The senators called upon the major energy companies to ask what we could do to assist the consumer; we thought we could offer discounted heating oil,'' said CITGO spokesman David McCollum.

While the contracts were signed by tribal leaders and CITGO, families were asking for assistance from the tribal LIHEAP offices. Now that spring is imminent in the Great Plains, with recent record-breaking high temperatures that reached slightly above 80 degrees, the threat of serious physical complications from the cold has abated; but the CITGO donation managed to get many tribal members through the harsh winter.

The spring-like temperatures don't mean winter is over in the northern Plains.

Judi Houle, director of elder programs and administrator of the LIHEAP for Rocky Boy's, said she hoped the people would have learned to conserve energy for the remainder of the season so they would not run out of fuel. After the CITGO-donated funds run out, there is little financial relief until late summer, when new leverage grants will be awarded, Houle said.

The donations to the 10 Great Plains tribes occurred in mid-February, and the program runs through mid-March. More than 160 American Indian tribes have benefited from the CITGO program.

On the February morning in which the contracts were signed and checks given to the tribal leaders while in Montana, the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation LIHEAP accepted applications from nine families. Applications were to be taken through the next week with an estimated 900 families that could benefit from the $376,000 offered by CITGO.

''It is hard to express the depth of our gratitude. Our LIHEAP program has been out of funds since October. People have been without heat, which resulted in sick infants and frozen pipes,'' said Joseph Brings Plenty, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

''This gift means a lot to our people.''

On Rocky Boy's, some 500 families could have benefited from the program.

''This program was a Godsend,'' Houle said.

''People were out of fuel with no chance of funding.''

Houle said that 80 percent of the people on Rocky Boy's were out of energy funds. The normal allocation is $240 per household, which ''doesn't stretch far.''

In Montana, with high winds and cold temperatures, some families can use up that allocation in two weeks.

The CITGO donation awarded $259 per family for each reservation.

Rocky Boy's, Cheyenne River and others received two donations, one for private homes and the other for facilities. Houle said the Boys and Girls Club, the elder's program, Veterans Administration program and a new wellness center also received financial relief.

McCollum said that up to 7,000 households on reservations in the two states of Montana and South Dakota would benefit. Montana received the lion's share of the funding, which would amount to an estimated 500,000 gallons of fuel oil; and for South Dakota, the amount was estimated at 209,000 gallons.

''This donation is greater than our entire 2006 LIHEAP budget. There is no greater gift that the people of Venezuela could have given to us. Thank you,'' said Bob Waters, Cheyenne River Sioux councilman.

On the Lower Brule Reservation, in mid-February, no families were out of fuel or without electricity, according to LIHEAP Director Karen Drapeau. Lower Brule owns a propane company that distributes fuel to Lower Brule and across the river to the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation. Drapeau said the funding would help families on both reservations.

The political climate between Venezuela and the United States is controversial, and some members of Congress argued against accepting the donations. Chavez is a major critic of the United States and President Bush.

''We are in the business of running a business and we leave the politics to others,'' McCullum said.

''It is a privilege to do business here and we are here for good citizenship,'' he said.

Donations were given to the Rocky Boy's, Fort Belknap, Flathead, Northern Cheyenne, Fort Peck, Blackfeet, and Little Shell reservations in Montana; and the Cheyenne River Sioux, Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations in South Dakota.