Octane Testing Program on Hot Seat

Wis. lawmakers want answers from state Commerce Department

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin lawmakers have given the state Department of Commerce until the end of next week to answer questions about its gasoline octane testing program, said the Associated Press.

Inspectors and others say the program been dysfunctional for years, leaving the public vulnerable to scams at the pumps.

We reiterated the allegations and asked them to follow up with us point by point, said State Senator Neal Kedzie (R), chairperson of the Committee on Natural Resources & Transportation.

Kedzie and State Representative Louis Molepske Jr. (D) met with recently appointed Commerce Secretary Mary Burke and her staff and said they gave the Commerce Department 10 days to reply.

We have to ensure our program is legitimate. We are going to continue to probe deeper and deeper into this so that [the public] can have faith in the system, Kedzie said.

Burke said Friday that the issue is a top priority for her department.

We want to make sure we're doing our jobs, she said.

An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel allegedly found that motorists pumping premium into their tanks do not always get the high-octane fuel they buy and instead sometimes get premium diluted with lower-grade gasoline.

State petroleum inspectors do not catch the alleged scammers because their testing equipment has been broken for years, the report claimed. State inspectors said the equipment used to test octane has been unreliable since it was purchased in 1995 and that supervisors, who spent more than half a million dollars on the equipment, knowingly spent time and money running tests on broken equipment and failed to resolve the situation.

Documents obtained by the newspaper support their stories, AP said. The equipment's manufacturer said the state refused to keep the machines calibrated regularly as is required for proper functioning.

The Commerce Department's director of the Bureau of Petroleum Products & Tanks, Phil Albert, agreed that the equipment had major problems over the years, but defended the recent $100,000 purchase of five new machines made by a different company. Inspectors, however, said those machines, too, have serious problems.

Kedzie said he asked Burke to explain how all the money was spent and what the department plans to do to protect the public from fraud at the pumps. There are a lot of questions here, he said. We want full accountability before we will let this thing be put to rest.

If he is not satisfied with Burke's answers, Kedzie said, he will push for a legislative audit.

Burke said she would focus her efforts on the future and was not in the position to defend a past administration. Burke was appointed secretary in January. It's hard to put myself in the shoes of people making decisions five years ago, she said, referring to complaints by inspectors that supervisors knowingly allowed tests to be run on unreliable equipment for nearly 10 years.