Virginia investigates sale of fuel containing a high percentage of ethanol

By Erin Voegele | July 08, 2009
Report posted July 10, 2009, at 11:00 a.m. CST

Between June 8 and July 7 the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) received more than 500 complaints regarding fuel containing high levels of ethanol that was sold in the Tidewater area of the state, which includes the cities and counties located along the state's coastal region.

According to VDACS, eight of the department's Office of Product and Industry Standards (OPIS) inspectors are dedicating their full attention to investigating these complaints. As of July 7, the inspectors had investigated 457 of the 532 complaints received by VDACS during this time.

While the vast majority of the fuel sampled by the inspectors was found to be in compliance, OPIS inspectors did issue five Stop Sale Orders. The affected pumps were sealed "Out of Service" and labeled with a prominent tag, protecting consumers by preventing the inadvertent purchase of a contaminated product. In each of these five cases, the retailers took action to ensure that their fuel was brought into compliance, and upon subsequent testing by OPIS, the Stop Sale Orders were lifted. In fewer than 10 other instances, inspectors determined that retailers who took delivery of suspect fuel had voluntarily closed their pumps and had the suspect fuel pumped out and replenished with fresh gasoline.

According to VDACS Director of Communications Elaine Lidholm, there was a large variation in the ethanol percentage of fuel at retail locations in which inspectors found that the gasoline contained high levels of ethanol. This variance ranged from 16 percent to 50 percent ethanol, with even larger percentages possible. "Fifty percent is as high as our field test kits register, so it could have actually been over 50 percent," she said. Laboratory testing will be used to verify the exact level of ethanol found in each fuel sample.

While Lidholm said VDACS is unable to release details of an active investigation, she said current indications are that the contamination originated at the wholesale level. "In all likelihood this will be traced to a single terminal," she said. "Early indications are that it was an honest mistake…There doesn't seem to be any indication of intentional contamination."

According to Lidholm, the 532 complaints filed with VDACS ran the gamut from feasible to ridiculous. Feasible complaints include claims of engine lights turning on and instances of engine sputtering. Other complaints, such as destroyed transmissions, would not have been caused using fuel containing a high percentage of ethanol.

OPIS is actively investigating all complaints that have been received, not only at the retail level, but also with various distributors and terminal operators. The findings are being reviewed for possible compliance action in accordance with the provisions of Virginia's Motor Fuels and Lubricating Oils law. In the event that restitution may be available in the future, consumers are encouraged to keep receipts and/or statements as proof of purchase.