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Amerigas issues leave customers in the cold

Lillian McMurrin holds a snow shovel in her left hand as she clears snow off the top of her new white propane tank with her right hand in front of a brown house.
Erin McIntyre
/
Ouray County Plaindealer
Ouray resident Lillian McMurrin clears snow off the top of her new propane tank from Pioneer Propane on Feb. 14. Her old tank from Amerigas remains behind it in the yard. McMurrin is one of several Ouray County residents who have reported problems with receiving propane refills from Amerigas the last couple of months. Amerigas didn't arrive to refill her tank until three weeks after she placed her order. By then, she had already switched to another company.

When his propane-fueled stove went out the day before Thanksgiving, Tate Rogers didn’t think much of it at first.

“I just kind of blew it off,” he said, because it isn’t his home’s only heat source. But the next day, when his wife was cooking Thanksgiving dinner, the gas-powered cooktop stopped working. That was when he went outside to check his propane tank, and realized it was empty.

Rogers, who lives between Ridgway and Ouray, was enrolled in automatic delivery with Amerigas, so the company usually refills the tank regularly, but this time, they hadn’t. He called the company and reached a call center, and was told someone would be there within 24 hours.

“That went on for five days,” he said. When a driver finally arrived to refill the tank, he told Rogers, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any employees,” and, “If I was you, I’d switch providers."

He’d been using Amerigas for at least the last decade, he said, and never had a problem, so he put the driver’s advice aside – until six weeks later, when he ran out of propane for a second time.

That was the last straw. He called a company two counties away for a new tank, and is terminating his service with Amerigas. “It’s just been big corporate shenanigans,” he said.

Rogers isn’t alone: Amerigas customers around this rural mountain county have reported delivery delays and communication issues over the last two months.

And now, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has taken note of the problems with Amerigas deliveries across the state. He sent a letter Wednesday demanding answers from Pennsylvania-based Amerigas, the largest retail propane distributor in the country.

“Your failure to provide propane is endangering Coloradans and placing minor children and elderly consumers at risk,” the letter said. “These actions may also create a public nuisance and violate one or more provisions of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.”

Ouray resident Lillian McMurrin keeps a close eye on her propane tank and typically orders when it’s 30% full. She put in an order on the company’s website on Jan. 6, and was told to expect delivery between Jan. 9 and Jan. 16.

But when it hadn’t arrived by Jan. 19, she called Amerigas, and was told it would be put on emergency status, with delivery between 24 and 72 hours.

She reached a breaking point when it hadn’t arrived by the 24th and running out became a real threat. She’d been trying to keep the temperature down inside her house to save propane, and was weighing whether to use small electric heaters, which would drive up her electricity bill.

“I can’t afford to have my house freeze up,” she said.

So she called Pioneer Propane, a company located in Delta, more than an hour away. They brought her a new tank the next day. She still has the Amerigas tank sitting in her yard, and she's still frustrated.

“Amerigas has to take some responsibility, and treat people like human beings who live someplace cold,” she said. “Every day I’m hearing of people running out of propane, and Amerigas doesn’t care.”

“Consumers report being at ‘emergency levels’ of propane for weeks, that their repeated calls to Amerigas go unanswered, and that the company has left consumers without their primary source of heating in the winter months,” the attorney general's letter to the company said. “At times, it appears that Amerigas charges consumers extra fees for emergency deliveries—emergencies that Amerigas itself created.”

In a written statement to the Plaindealer, Amerigas spokeswoman Brilynn Johnson attributed the issues to weather.

"Due to colder than normal temperatures saturating a good part of the country we have seen some delivery delays,” she said. “Our teams are working seven days a week to ensure our customers have full tanks and warm homes. We are taking steps to speed up deliveries, as roads are cleared, by bringing in drivers from other areas. As we work quickly to deliver propane to our customers, we must also prioritize the safety of our drivers, customers, and communities.”

But Ouray County hasn’t had major road closures this winter – and Johnson’s statement was nearly identical to ones provided to news outlets in Utah, Washington and Nevada, reporting on similar delivery delays.

“Being the largest propane distribution company, we have a network of drivers that we regularly deploy to areas that need additional assistance due to weather, staffing challenges, emergency situations,” Johnson said in response to follow-up questions about the statement.

She said customers who order propane on demand should order when their tanks are at 40%, and should “conserve energy when possible.”

Johnson also said the company has had problems with tanks being inaccessible due to snow, and said customers need to ensure their driveways are plowed and there is a 10-foot-wide path clear of snow and ice for delivery.

But Ouray County residents who haven’t received propane have said access isn’t the problem: It’s communicating with the company and actually getting a delivery truck to their property.

McMurrin maintained a 10-by-15 area for the truck, as well as the path to the tank, knowing she was expecting a delivery.

On Jan. 23, after she’d been waiting for more than two weeks, she received a text from the company reminding her to clear the area – even though it was already clear, and even though no one had come to deliver the propane.

She and Rogers both said reaching the company about their issues added frustration: Instead of calling Amerigas’ Delta location, which they were previously able to do, they’re now funneled to a call center they found unresponsive, or difficult to speak with.

That’s been among the most frustrating challenges for Howard Greene, who lives northeast of Ridgway.

“Amerigas has a system problem,” he said. “They have no local phone number to call, and there is no way for you to get a call back from the person you’re speaking to, who could be anywhere on Earth.”

He was also signed up for automatic refills, but nearly ran out in December, then again in February, only receiving a delivery after making multiple calls each day.

“They tell you that your delivery is pending, but it can be weeks,” he said, and the automated system doesn’t account for variables like especially cold weather or snowstorms.

Conversations on the company’s customer service phone line have been fruitless, Greene said. He’s asked for status updates, or to speak directly to a dispatcher, and been told, no, it needs to go through the system, he said, which quickly becomes a rabbit hole.

“If you have a local company, where people can hear what you say and have local capacity to let you know what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it, that seems like a better idea,” Greene said.

Johnson said customers who haven’t received deliveries should use the online system at my.amerigas.com. McMurrin and Rogers aren’t the only residents who’ve turned to other companies for better service.

Jamie Botts, co-owner of Pioneer Propane, said the company has seen a large increase in new customers since the beginning of December, which she attributed to the Amerigas problems.

That’s been the case across the region, from Ouray County to Mesa County, she said.

“They’re saying that Amerigas is two or more weeks out, and leaving them without propane for a long time,” she said.

It’s against the law for a propane company to fill a tank owned by another company, so for customers who are renting their tanks from Amerigas and want to switch, a new tank must be installed.

“We’re trying to get them in as fast as we can,” Botts said, usually within a few days or up to a week at most. The cost of changing to a new company was an extra expense for McMurrin, which came just after replacing her water heater in January due to a water pressure surge in the city in December. The local company gave her “a really good deal,” she said, but it’s still extra money she wasn’t planning to spend.

The morning after she received her new tank, Amerigas arrived – 20 days after her initial order, and a week after she was told the order would be put into “emergency status.”

McMurrin wasn’t home at the time – but her grandson answered the door and told the driver she wasn’t getting propane from Amerigas anymore. “He pulled the regulator out, and I hadn’t heard from them since,” she said – until Feb. 3, when she opened her email and saw a bill from Amerigas.

Weiser requested the company meet with his attorneys “to discuss your compliance with state law and the measures you plan to take to protect Colorado consumers.”

He asked Amerigas to reply to the letter by March 1.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program that helps boost reporting in underserved areas. To make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work, click here.

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