December 31, 2013

Some Mainers left in cold as ice, snow stymie fuel trucks

After a series of winter storms, drivers are forced to deny some oil deliveries if they deem conditions unsafe.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Some energy companies have declined to provide heating oil to homes in Maine this winter because ice and snow have made it difficult to safely make deliveries.

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Tim Darnell of Cash Energy heads up a snowy, icy driveway Monday while delivering oil in Portland. Steep and slick driveways and snow-clogged back roads are making deliveries difficult in some areas.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Dexter Smith carries water for drinking and other uses Monday into his home on Settlers Landing Road in Hancock. At the peak, 120,000 were without power after the ice storm in Maine a week ago.

Michael C. York/Special to the Press Herald

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A messy mixture of rain and snow on Sunday, coupled with two storms that battered parts of the state last week, have led some companies to refuse delivery to some homes, mainly along rural roads or in neighborhoods with piles of snow.

No state agency tracks the number of failed deliveries, but anecdotal evidence from heating oil businesses indicates that in some areas, mainly north of Portland, drivers of oil trucks have run into difficult situations in accessing properties.

It’s the driver who decides whether to deliver oil to any house or business. Although the oil may be a necessity for the customer, the drivers may be wary of risking their safety and a truckload of oil worth $15,000 by trying to climb a steep and icy driveway, maneuver under ice-encrusted branches or navigate snow-clogged back roads.

“It’s frustrating for customers because they think (because) the plow truck can come down, the oil truck should (be able to),” said Les Thomas, owner of Cash Energy, which operates 40 trucks that distribute heating oil from Scarborough to Bangor.

Last week, Cash Energy drivers refused to make deliveries to about 25 houses each day, of the hundreds of daily runs by the company’s trucks.

Other companies said they have denied service to some homes sporadically because of icy roads, but they could not provide figures on how many customers went without oil deliveries.

Many people who may be cash-strapped from the holidays and the weak economy order the minimum amount of fuel – usually 100 gallons – to avoid a delivery charge. Those residents run out of oil more often and require more visits from trucks, Thomas said.

“Customers are agitated. No one likes spending $400, especially this time after the holiday. I think they’re cutting it close,” Thomas said.

The average price for No. 2 heating oil in Maine rose 4 cents last week, to $3.76 a gallon, part of a month-long upswing. Prices are 20 cents higher now than they were at the end of November, said Lisa Smith, senior planner in the Governor’s Energy Office, which tracks heating fuel prices.

Kerosene prices are also rising, and a regional shortage of propane has increased the price of that fuel.

A spokesman for Dead River Co., one of Maine’s largest oil and propane delivery companies, reported similar difficulties with deliveries, but couldn’t specify how many people had to wait longer than expected.

“We contact the customer and talk to them about what needs to be done to get the truck in,” said Dead River spokesman Casey Cramton. “It’s not uncommon that these things happen.”

Before an oil delivery, the customer must be sure to shovel or plow the driveway wider than usual to accommodate a large oil truck, and ensure that a path is shoveled to the oil filler pipe. If public roads are not cleared adequately, a call to the municipality could help speed their treatment with salt, sand or plows.

Even smaller companies are making tough choices about providing services.

Durham Oil Co., which operates three oil trucks and one propane truck, refused deliveries to about a half-dozen customers last week because of poor conditions at the houses.

“Folks aren’t thinking, I guess,” said Durham Oil co-owner Mickie Thibeault. “They’re thinking they need their oil, but they’re not always thinking their driveway needs to be clear.”

So many people have called for deliveries that Durham Oil has restricted some of its service to regular customers.

Several days of bitter cold and a storm that’s expected to bring more snow later this week have increased demand for deliveries, oil companies have said.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that qualified and willing drivers for fuel trucks are in short supply, said Jamie Py, executive director of the Maine Energy Marketer’s Association, a trade group for oil- and gas-related companies.

A driver must have a commercial driver’s license and a hazardous-materials endorsement on the license, which requires fingerprinting. Then, if a driver needs access to oil terminals, he or she must be granted a second form of identification and go through a secondary screening and fingerprinting process.

Also, federal rules limit professional drivers to 60 hours on the road per week.

“We don’t have dozens of people standing around to do this,” Py said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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