Va. High-Ethanol Fuel Investigation Update

At least 12 stations received tainted gas, prompting more than 420 complaints

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. -- As reported in CSP Daily News last week, at least a dozen gas stations in Hampton Roads, Va., received gasoline containing higher-than-allowed amounts of ethanol earlier this month, much of which was pumped into the vehicles of unsuspecting motorists. The tainted fuel, found stations from Franklin to Gloucester County, has prompted more than 420 consumer complaints since June 12, reported The Daily Press.

Some gasoline sampled by state investigators had ethanol levels as high as 50%five times the prescribed amount, Elaine Lidholm, [image-nocss] a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, the state agency conducting the investigation.

While virtually all of the gasoline is thought to be out of the system, the state continues to investigate complaints and is trying to link the gas to one local supplier, which the state declined to name. "We have an indication that it is one terminal, but we have not yet been able to confirm that," Lidholm said.

The state also declined to name any of the stations found to have received the high-ethanol gas, citing an exemption in the state's Freedom of Information Act that deals with ongoing investigations, said the report.

Only one local station, a Farm Fresh in Smithfield, has publicly acknowledged selling the tainted fuel. It immediately shut down its pumps, emptied its holding tanks and refilled them with clean fuel.

Some local gas station owners and fuel distributors told the newspaper that the fuel originated at a Chesapeake terminal operated by Apex Oil Co. Inc., a wholesale gas distributor with operations in the Midwest and eastern United States.

Douglas D. Hommert, the St. Louis-based company's executive vice president and general counsel, neither confirmed nor denied that the Chesapeake terminal distributed the tainted gasoline. "We do not wish to discuss this matter with the press," he told the paper. "We're not going to make any comments on this issue."

The tainted gasoline was delivered to stations throughout Hampton Roads on June 8 and 9, and the state began receiving complaints from motorists at the end of that week, the report said. Seven inspectors were dispatched to several dozen local retailers to test fuel suspected of having high ethanol content.

But even after finding the tainted gasoline, the state has been slow to link the high-ethanol fuel to a lone supplier, said the report. The method of distributing gasoline is a complicated network that involves several playersrefiners, fuel terminal operators, wholesale distributors, transportation and delivery companies and retail sellersmaking the process of tracking the fuel to the original source a challenge, Lidholm said.

Since ethanol costs more than pure gasoline blends, state officials think the high-ethanol fuel in circulation was due to an equipment malfunction at one of the local terminals, the report said.

In the unlikely event the agency finds it was deliberate, the state has the authority to level civil penalties against the company responsible, said the paper. If the agency finds the problem to be an unintended equipment error, it's unclear what recourse consumers might have, Lidholm said.

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