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Harsh weather in Bering Sea keeps fuel barges from villages

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Regular fuel shipments to several Bering Sea villages have been halted for the past three months because of severe storms, forcing the communities to rely on emergency diesel rations, community leaders said.

The fuel barge, operated by Delta Western, cannot navigate the powerful gales and surging seas to reach St. Paul and St. George on the Pribilof Islands, as well as Nikolski and Perryville in the Aleutian chain.

For now, fishing vessels and small planes are flying small amounts of emergency fuel supplies to the communities.

''We're running on fumes right now,'' said St. George city administrator Max Malavansky. ''We wouldn't have been in this boat right now if the fuel had arrived in August. It's been a litany of excuses.''

St. George would have normally gotten a shipment of tens of thousands of gallons of diesel in the fall, enough to last the winter, Malavansky said.

The village has been scraping by with small shipments, such as the 660 gallons of diesel that arrived Dec. 4 and will last about a week, Malavansky said.

Delta Western president Kirk Payne called this year's weather ''an anomaly,'' some of the worst he's seen in 20 years.

''It's just not acceptable to send a vessel out into that kind of weather,'' Payne said.

Delta Western has been flying and moving the fuel on fishing boats at prices nearly double the cost of the usual shipment and selling it at a loss rather than charge communities for the extra transport costs, he said.

In Nikolski, a fisherman from Dutch Harbor has been hauling boatloads of fuel every few weeks, said Tanya Kyle, tribal administrator for the Nikolski Tribal Council. The village had enough fuel Dec. 7 to last until early the following week, she said.

''They keep giving us dates when they're going to deliver fuel, but the date keeps getting pushed back,'' Kyle said.

Payne said it takes time to get fuel out to about 100 communities spread out over hundreds of miles with a five-ship fleet, he said.

According to the National Weather Service, gale-force winds have been battering the area. The weather service predicted Bering Sea waves would be at least 10 feet and up to 19 feet through Dec. 9. The barge is able to navigate seas of up to 12 feet, Payne said.

Mike Harper, deputy director of rural energy at the Alaska Energy Authority, said the situation did not appear to warrant government assistance.

''We have been in contact with the supplier and we feel confident that they have the situation under control,'' Harper said. ''We're not going to let people get into a real tight spot.''