It's a dreadful winter

Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Waterbury Republican-American
Waterbury, CT

Worries mount as fuel prices spike in state

This winter's polar vortex has provided a chilling addition to our weather vocabulary in a season when football players in New Jersey prepare to battle in what will almost certainly be the coldest on-field temperature for a Super Bowl.

But for Sprague Street resident Linda Airline, the frigid forecasts offer nothing to appreciate. Instead, she monitors with dread the gauge marking her oil tank's dwindling contents.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Airline said Monday. "I'm hanging in there and hoping we'll stay warm."

As fuel prices spike and government support shrinks, people like Airline worry as much as ever when temperatures dip below freezing. Operation Fuel, a nonprofit fuel bank, estimates that 295,000 Connecticut low-income households owe, on average, $2,363 more than they can afford to heat their homes.

"It's quite a challenge," said Joanne Balaschak, director of energy services with New Opportunities, the nonprofit agency administering the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in Waterbury and Torrington. "We're trying to juggle the funding we have just to help people get through."

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection reports heating oil prices hit $4.22 a gallon last week, up from $4.14 during the same week last year and from $2.50 in 2009. So far, this season has seen a 12 percent increase in days requiring heat from a year ago. And demand for propane and limited distribution to the state via rail and pipeline has driven costs to $3.44 a gallon, a 19 percent increase from last year, a DEEP spokesman said. As of October, the cost of natural gas was still 8 percent lower than the prior year.

Meanwhile, LIHEAP paid for an average of 49,214 heating bills last year, down from 64,344 the year before, according to Operation Fuel.

Airline works 32 hours a week at $9.50 an hour as a home care aide, taking home $512 every two weeks. She pays $750 in rent for a first-floor apartment in a 110-year-old house she shares with her disabled ex-husband and her granddaughter. New Opportunities provided her with three deliveries of oil since November at a total cost of $1,170.

But she is not eligible for any more fuel assistance. And she estimates the half-tank remaining will only last another three weeks.

"I guess I'm going to get an electric heater and hope for the best," Airline said, describing plans to close off the bedrooms and dining room and huddle on the living room floor.

The family has covered windows with plastic, filled cracked walls with tape and stuffed towels under doors. With the thermostat on her 70-year-old furnace set at a steady 68 degrees, the temperature can still drop to 50 degrees or lower overnight, Airline said.

"You can see your breath," she said.

Airline believes the government must realign its priorities, noting that her elderly clients and others are even more at risk than her family.

"You've got people that are going to freeze to death," she said. "You've got kids who are going to freeze to death. And it doesn't take long."

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