ATLANTA — When you fill up your vehicle at the gas station, you never actually see the product you buy. Instead, you have to trust that you’re getting what you pay for.
But last December, Cheryl Cochran got more than she expected. Cochran drives a new, bright red Ford 150, named Lucy, after Lucille Ball.
On Dec. 12, just before noon, she filled up Lucy’s tank at a Villa Rica Shell station.
“After I left, the truck starts skipping immediately and by the time I got home the check engine light was on, so I knew that something's wrong," she said.
Cochran called the state Agriculture Department’s fuel and measures division. Their inspector found the problem. State records show the station’s underground storage tank had an inch and a half of water in it.
The station paid Cochran’s repair bill of nearly $600.
Two days before Cochran bought tainted gas in Villa Rica, Anna Popenko found herself stuck in traffic and low on gas. She pulled of I-285 and bought gas at a station billing itself as a Texaco.
"The minute I got back on the highway, my car started shaking,” Popenko said.
Like Cochran, Popenko immediately called the state. Records show inspectors found 6 inches of water in the underground tank.
Popenko’s repair bill was more than $600.
“You don't think you're going to get something else in the gas tank but the gas,” she said.
But at the state fuel testing lab in Tifton, a closet full of tainted samples proves otherwise. Consumer Investigator Jim Strickland toured the lab with the head of the fuels division, Rich Lewis.
That’s where inspectors look at gasoline from routine inspections as well as complaints. Overall, Lewis says, about 5 percent of the pumps they check have a problem.
Strickland asked, “How does water figure into those fails?” Lewis replied, “About half of the failures turn out to be water.”
Here’s how it happens. According to Lewis, “If it rains a lot, there's water standing in parking lots, things like that, it can seep into underground tanks if the caps are not secure.”
Strickland reviewed three years of verified complaints to the state and found a pattern.
While independently owned gas stations had sporadic problems, the biggest corporately owned stations did not.
QuikTrip, with more than 130 stations in metro Atlanta, and RaceTrac with more than 100 across the state, had zero verified complaints of watered-down gas. Both companies use water-detection systems and independent testing.
“We hire a third-party contractor that inspects our fuel quality. Additionally, we have fuel support technicians that also monitor our gas systems,” Marc Milburn of QuikTrip told Strickland.
On the flip side, a one-time Shell station in Buford got caught with watery gas four times in three years. There’s been no issue since the store became a BP with a new owner in 2017.
No matter where you fill up, state officials urge you to always hit the “yes” button when asked if you want a receipt. The receipt is important if you ever get a bad batch.
And the sooner you contact the state, the better.
“The quicker that we know about the problem, the more likely it is that we'll find the problem and address it,” Lewis said.
He added the station owners are legally liable for the gas they sell.
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