Gambell rations fuel as it awaits fuel barge and line repair

An overview of Gambell, Alaska. (KNOM File)

Fuel rations are getting tighter and tighter in Gambell as the St. Lawrence Island community awaits its annual fuel barge. This summer’s delivery was originally slated to arrive by the end of June, but the barge hasn’t been seen yet and neither has the equipment needed to repair Gambell’s fuel line.

A couple months ago, Gambell’s population of over 700 had their fuel rationed to 30 gallons per day, which negatively impacted whaling captains and other subsistence hunters. According to Jeremiah Apatiki, the owner of Gambell’s Native Store, residents are now down to two gallons a day.

The community has already received three emergency fuel deliveries, by airplane, of 3,900 gallons apiece. But sometime this week, depending on weather, Apatiki says a fourth delivery is expected to land in Gambell with the last of their money’s worth in emergency fuel.

Gambell’s current hardship really began last year when the summer fuel barge from Crowley failed twice to unload its precious cargo on the island community. According to Linda Austin, a controller with ANICA, even if the fuel had been delivered within the last 12 months, Gambell’s fuel line still needs to be repaired before it can handle that delivery.

Gambell’s current fuel line. Photo from KNOM’s JoJo Phillips, May of 2020.

Last summer a leak was discovered in the community’s fuel line which contributed to the barge not delivering at that time. Now, Austin says, the State of Alaska has contracted with someone to replace a pipe and repair the fuel line this summer. However, the construction crew, materials and equipment the contractor needs won’t arrive in Gambell until later this week or even early next week.

Once those are in place, Austin estimates it could take about six weeks for the repairs on the fuel line to be made. The timeline given to the State Emergency Operations Center for this repair marks the completion date for early September.

The owner of Gambell’s Native Store, Apatiki, says it’s likely that the fuel barge from Crowley will arrive before the fuel line is repaired. If that is the case, a fuel tanker will need to be used to offload the fuel from the barge and distribute it to the community. Austin says using the fuel truck would raise the cost of Gambell’s fuel delivery by roughly 35 cents a gallon and the community is currently paying more than $12 per gallon of fuel.

Whether the fuel barge arrives first, the repair crew along with the supply barge arrives first, or both get to Gambell at the same time; the community will continue to navigate the summer subsistence season without enough gas to power their fishing boats.