‘Perfect storm’ of events plagues heat customers

Steve Swendsen of Gorham fills several 6-gallon gas cans with heating oil at PitStop Fuels in Standish. 

STANDISH — Effects of the recent streak of frigid weather continue to reverberate through the Lakes Region, with some residents struggling to get home heating fuel or even basic information from their fuel companies.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office says it has received about 100 complaints about PitStop Fuels in Standish, more than about any other heating company.

Complaint Examiner Martha Currier of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division said Wednesday that complaints against PitStop include customers ordering fuel and not receiving it, being promised delivery dates that haven’t been met, and substandard communication from the company.

Despite those frustrations, several customers at PitStop in Standish said Tuesday that they understood the situation and had no plans to switch companies.

Steve Swendsen, a PitStop customer from Gorham, said he was on his third trip filling up 6-gallon gas cans with heating oil. He said he’d been give a delivery date of Jan. 24.

“Hopefully I’ll be all set until they come,” he said. “I think the whole thing caught everybody by surprise.”

Swendsen said he had been a PitStop customer for seven or eight years and that, “I don’t have an intention of going anywhere else.”

Robin Googins of Gray said she left work early Tuesday and went to PitStop after her unsuccessful attempts to reach the company by phone and email about her delivery originally scheduled for Jan. 5.

While at PitStop, she learned from her husband that their fuel had been delivered.

“These guys are working their butts off,” Googins said. “The hardest part has been the lack of communication.”

PitStop Fuels is owned by Stone Road Energy. Company Vice President Josh Sandhal told the Portland Press Herald last week that the company was “seeing in excess of 100 calls an hour.”

“We are working as quickly as possible to get as many customers their deliveries as we possibly can, including delivering all weekend,” Sandhal said. “At the end of the day, our driver safety is of utmost importance and we want to make sure every driver goes home safe every day.”

Attempts to speak with PitStop employees in Standish were unsuccessful Tuesday. After spending time speaking with customers, a Lakes Region Weekly reporter was asked to leave the premises by private security officers.

The two security officers wore uniforms and drove vehicles identifying them as employees of Scarborough-based First Protection Services. When reached by phone, an employee confirmed that the company provides armed security services.

Lakes Region town managers said they’d heard of numerous residents who have encountered issues with heating fuel companies.

Casco Town Manager Dave Morton said it has been a “struggle for people in general to get heating fuel,” adding that companies are “flat out” and seem to be “doing their best to fill all their deliveries.”

Raymond Manager Don Willard said Tuesday he had heard from two or three constituents with concerns about their heating company.

Both Morton and Willard said state Rep. Jess Fay was encouraging constituents with heating issues to contact her.

Fay, a Democrat serving Casco, Raymond and Poland, called the situation a “perfect storm” given the cold and the holidays. She said she had heard from 10-15 people personally and many more through social media.

“Honestly, I just want to make sure my constituents don’t freeze,” said Fay, who has been working to share information with the heating industry and the state’s energy office.

“The Energy Office has been very busy over the last couple of weeks assisting constituents with home heating fuel delivery problems,” Director Steven McGrath said in a Wednesday press release. “Many Mainers are still having difficulty obtaining timely fuel deliveries during the state’s severe and prolonged cold weather. We have been coordinating with fuel delivery companies and distributors, and will continue to do so until heating fuel deliveries return to normal.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage signed an emergency declaration aimed at giving heating fuel delivery drivers flexibility with federal driving hour limits so they can continue deliveries.

“Our oil delivery drivers need the flexibility to be on the roads so Mainers can heat their homes over the next several days,” LePage said in a press release.

Rep. Lester Ordway, R-Standish, said Tuesday night that he’s heard from many people about issues with PitStop and, like Fay, also described the situation as a “perfect storm.”

Ordway, who said he’s also been in touch with the governor’s office, cited the cold weather along with the recent sale PitStop as compounding factors.

“When you sell a business, you drive your inventory down,” he said.

Standish Town Council Chairwoman Kimberly Pomerleau said that while she’s received questions about the heating situation through her municipal role, she also has direct experience with the issue as the owner of a small heating company.

Pomerleau and her husband Phil own Maine-ly Heating Oil in Standish, and she described the recent weeks as, “three degrees away from hell, quite honestly.”

Pomerleau said her business, which delivers heating oil and kerosene in one truck driven by her husband, has been able to provide service for its customers but has also been innundated by calls from other companies’ customers looking for fuel.

“My phone rings 24-7. It has since Christmas,” said Pomerleau. Staff members have helped return calls, she said.

“It’s very sad because we can’t help those people,” she said. “We have helped a few people, but not many.”

Pomerleau said she understood the predicament that recent cold weather and a major snowstorm, coupled with the holidays, presented for both customers and fuel providers.

“Everybody’s trying to catch up,” she said, adding that last week’s snowstorm “took two days out of everybody’s delivery week” and that deliveries can take twice as long when drivers need to navigate snowbanks and other obstacles during the delivery.

“It wasn’t just one company that had issues,” she said.

Currier said consumers can contact the Attorney General’s Office with concerns by email at consumer.mediation@maine.gov.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Steve Swendsen of Gorham fills several 6-gallon gas cans with heating oil at PitStop Fuels in Standish.

A delivery truck refuels Tuesday at PitStop Fuels in Standish.