Is your gasoline safe? County auditors want authority to test fuel quality

Ohio is one of three states, along with Alaska and Nebraska, that do not check for fuel quality.

Area county auditors and local state lawmakers want counties to receive authority to test the quality of gasoline following the breakdowns of several vehicles and lawnmowers in April after they fueled up at a West Chester Twp. gas station.

FIRST REPORT: Bad gasoline found at Butler County station

Rain poured into an underground fuel storage area at the Sunoco at the corner of Dimmick Road and Ohio 42. Motorists, remembering that Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds’ office has red stickers on gas pumps, called to report the problem.

“We had several cars breaking down on the road after they got gas at this station,” said David Brown, a deputy auditor for Reynolds who handles community and employee relations for the office. “So they’re calling us and saying, ‘You’ve got to get after this station, they’re selling bad gas.’”

Reynolds’ office had to tell them that despite the red stickers on pumps that announce the auditor checks for gas pump accuracy, its employees lack authority to check for other issues, including water or sediments in the gas, or a less visible problem of inaccurate octane levels.

MORE: How inspectors check gas pumps to make sure you get amount you pay for

Ohio is one of three states, along with Alaska and Nebraska, that do not check for fuel quality. The exception in Ohio is Summit County, home to Akron, which has a home-rule form of government and has checked gas quality since 2005.

The Summit County Fiscal Office not only checks each gasoline pump for water, sediment, other contaminants and octane-level accuracy, but also makes public the results in a searchable database on its website.

The red stickers announce to consumers “that they’re getting the proper amount of fuel when they fill up,” Brown said. “We’ll pull out 15 gallons of gas and we’ll make sure it hits, within tolerance, 15 gallons.”

When an auditor’s inspector visited the West Chester Sunoco, a private company was there determining what the problem was, and a technician put a testing pole into the storage tank and found the tank “was three feet full of water when it came up,” Brown said. “That was almost 100 percent water (drivers) were getting in their tank.”

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The Sunoco station’s owner was unavailable to comment for this article.

Not responding to a request for comment was American Petroleum Institute of Ohio (API Ohio), which in the past has resisted such legislation.

Ohio in 2007 implemented a law that gave the Ohio Department of Agriculture the option of creating a fuel-testing program that would be uniform across the state. Shortly afterward, the department’s budget and staff were cut, and the program wasn’t implemented.

The state may not be able to afford to test, but counties can, Brown recently told Hamilton City Council.

“The auditor is saying, ‘Hey, we’re out there pulling 15 gallons of gas, why can’t we check and make sure there’s no water in that tank? Why can’t we check that the octane level is what it should be?’ If you’re paying for premium gasoline, who’s to say you’re not getting the low-end gasoline? We’re just taking their word for it, in essence, because nobody’s checking.”

It may cost the county about $15,000 for testing equipment, “but we feel like that’s something that we can absorb for the betterment of the community,” Brown said.

Fuel-quality testing will take just a few minutes, “and it’s not just for the consumer,” he added.

Had the auditor’s office been able to check the Sunoco tank days earlier, officials might have been able to warn the owner about the problem so he could avoid the reputation of selling bad gasoline, he said.

Reynolds’ office reached out to Butler County’s three state lawmakers who will remain in office next year, and they agreed with the concept, Brown said. Other counties, including Montgomery and Hamilton, supported such legislation in 2007, he said.

State Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester Twp., told the Journal-News: “I am very supportive of what Roger is attempting to do here. He is offering what could be a simple fix to what potentially can be a severe problem, and was a severe problem during the last flooding issue, at least at that gas station in West Chester, and without a big cost to taxpayers.”

“I think it only makes sense that we move this responsibility under the auditors’ office, since they’re doing this work at all the gas stations anyway,” Lang said.

Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes remains a supporter of the program, and is critical of the state and others who oppose the tests.

“The Director of Agriculture refused my request for a spot test in Hamilton County last summer because he never adopted the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) standards that would let him do it,” Rhodes said. “I’ve always been suspicious as to why the (American) Petroleum Institute lobbyists would fight so hard to prevent this. Long-haul truckers avoid filling up in Ohio if they possibly can.”

Almost 6 billion gallons of gasoline are sold per year in Ohio, making it one of the country’s largest fuel consumers, Rhodes said. He noted that when Summit County started testing 240 service stations, it found dozens of violations. In 1999, a state survey of 135 gas stations in 23 jurisdictions “found that 21 percent of the samples of regular gas collected didn’t meet minimum quality standards,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said states like Missouri and West Virginia around the start of this century saw significant decreases in quality issues after they started regular testing.

“Once they know it can and will be checked, the bad guys stop their games,” he said.

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