Propane problems spark questions of regulation

Complaints about a well-known propane supplier, got us asking questions about the possible need to a regulate the industry.

Call 12 got complaints, ranging from unauthorized fill ups to exorbitant fees. AmeriGas is contacting those people now, and said it made improvements over the last 10 months to strengthen its focus on customer service.

Propane lights up Glenn Harrell's fire place, runs his heat pump and heats his water tank. But an $800 bill got him hot.

"I've asked them to come get their gas and leave me alone," said Glenn.

And vowing never to pay it.

"No! I have no intentions of paying it."

Glenn said he's not their customer, and AmeriGas made an unauthorized delivery. In retaliation, Glenn put a lock on the underground tank and notified AmeriGas.

"If they step foot on this property again, they will be trespassing. All I need to do is call the Sheriff's Office and they'll take care of it."

According to AmeriGas, Glenn is their customer. A notice online showed that Spencer Brothers Propane, Glenn's former supplier, was purchased by AmeriGas.

Customers' files were part of the acquisition. The battle ground now, is tank ownership.

"They are corporate bullies. They want to negotiate gas prices. That's not going to happen. I'm not your customer. They talk about me purchasing a tank that I own. I'm not going to purchase a tank that I own. I'm getting bullied."

Lori Wood, a happy 10-year AmeriGas customer, wants to sever ties now. Lori got two bills in 30 days totaling $2,200.

AmeriGas lowered one bill after she did a price check with other companies, then called AmeriGas and complained.

"Five dollars a gallon is what they originally charged us, and then to call them and for them to immediately lower the price to three dollars a gallon seems a little suspect."

The company statement said it's disappointing even a handful of customers out of more than 16,000 in the greater Richmond area, falls short of their goal of complete satisfaction. AmeriGas is working with all 18 customers we identified.

In two cases, the tank was buried underground when the home was built, years ago. AmeriGas said it owns the tanks, but neither side has provided proof. Lori has even offered to buy the tank from AmeriGas.

"We were told, 'we're not selling any tanks right now.' They left us believing that we have no other option but to continue our relationship with them. We've asked them to remove the tank from our property."

It's illegal under Virginia's criminal code for anyone other than the owner of the tank to fill it.

That, along with tank rental fees, fees because you don't use enough, fees to pump out gas and dig out the tank make it difficult for people to switch to another supplier.

"I don't want to have a relationship with them. I don't feel like I have to continue my relationship with them, no matter what they say."

Erin Russell is among the growing voices calling for the state to regulate propane as it does other utilities. She's demanding a refund after unanswered calls to AmeriGas to cancel service.

"They went in and filled the tank with 400 gallons of propane and sent myself and my husband a bill for $1,092. You have to pay for it and we don't want it."

Senator John Watkins serves on the Commerce and Labor Committee and believes the remedy is in the contract, not regulation.

"If there's an ongoing problem in that area, maybe we have to look at those contracts and stipulate conditions under which long term contracts can be developed."

AmeriGas said it brought in a new manager in the Richmond office and installed a new phone system, dramatically improving customer service and response time.

Not quick enough for Janie Worrell, who said she called to cancel several times and got an unauthorized delivery after not using the tank for three years.

"I was livid because I'm on a fixed income and $552 for a tank I don't use. I was very upset with it," said Worrell.

She said AmeriGas reduced the bill to a $100 disconnection fee.

She got a second bill charging her interest.

"Within a week, I got another bill — they had tacked the $8.17 to it. To me, that's a rip off."

If you feel cheated, Senator Watkins and the attorney general's office said contact Consumer Affairs.

The a.g.'s office will get involved only if a company engages in a pattern of conduct that violates the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.

AmeriGas has also established a 24-hour hotline.

Read the company's entire response - link

Read the statement from the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia - link

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