Nearly 200 former Irving Energy customers in Vermont will receive a check in the mail after terminating their propane contracts years ago.
The state settled a consumer protection case Monday with one of the largest propane dealers in Vermont. Irving Energy, a heating oil and propane dealer headquartered in New Hampshire, will pay up to $425,000 to the state and former customers for violating the state’s consumer protection law.
Customers complained that the company was slow to provide reimbursements for unused fuel and slow to remove their tanks after they ended propane services with the dealer.
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office regulates propane dealer practices. This is the third time the state has settled with a fuel dealer whose business activities violated the law.
“Hopefully, the propane dealers are well aware of their legal obligations now,” said Attorney General Bill Sorrell, “and they’re going to meet those timelines better or they’re going to have to pay a lot of money to the state and Vermont consumers.”
Irving will pay the state $100,000 in civil penalties; $160,000 to the state’s fuel assistance program, Vermont Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); and up to $166,000 to former customers for delayed reimbursements and tank removals.
The company said Monday it will update its operating procedures in Vermont.
“Irving Oil cooperated closely with the Vermont Attorney General’s Office on this matter, and we have enhanced our operational procedures as a result of lessons learned,” Samantha Robinson, a representative for Irving Oil, told VTDigger in an email. “We regret the inconvenience this matter may have caused.”
The state settled with Pyrofax Energy in 2012 and AmeriGas, the nation’s largest propane dealer, in 2013, after receiving similar complaints.
“The number of complaints has been reduced,” Sorrell said. “I think it was clear to them that we were serious.”
He said the office is still investigating complaints, but did not name any companies.
“Our investigations of propane dealers are not complete. Unfortunately, at our Consumer Assistance Program, we are continuing to receive complaints relating to tank removals, lack of timely refunds and various other billing and/or delivery issues,” Sorrell wrote in an email.
From January 2010 to October 2012, Irving failed to reimburse 79 former customers for the unused propane in their tanks within the legal timeline of 20 days, and 118 customers did not have their storage tanks removed within the same time frame, according to the settlement agreement.
Customers who did not receive a refund within the legal time frame will receive a $250 check if their service was terminated before May 25, 2011, when the consumer protection law was amended to increase penalties on propane dealers. After this date, customers will receive $250 and an additional $75 for every day exceeding the time frame until the refund was issue.
For delayed tank removal, customers will receive between $500 and $2,000, depending on when the tank was finally removed, according to the agreement.
Richard Moffi, chief of the state’s Fuel Assistance Office within the Department for Children and Families, hopes dealers get the message.
“It’s not the same company breaking the same law every year. One would hope that other propane dealers would pay attention and see that the Attorney General’s Office and consumer advocates and consumers take [the Consumer Fraud Rule, CF111, which regulates propane services] very, very seriously,” Moffi said.
Moffi oversees the LIHEAP program. He said the money received from Irving will be carried over to next year. The program has already received nearly $500,000 from settlements with propane dealers, he said.
In addition to the 197 cases already identified, customers can still file a complaint to the company to be considered for a refund.
Customers eligible for reimbursement will receive a letter from the Attorney General’s Office. “You ought to open it,” Sorrell said.