County auditors check fuel quantity, not quality in Ohio

Grace Dobush

Little square stickers on gas pumps assure consumers they are getting what they are paying for.

Currently, county auditors’ offices in Ohio test pumps for volume, making sure the gallon you buy for close to $3 is really 128 ounces.

“The public might think auditors know what’s in the tanks,” said Fran Lesser, executive director of the County Auditors Association of Ohio. “That’s not the case.”

Ohio is one of only four states that does not have a statewide gas-quality testing program. The others are Alaska, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

But Summit County pumps have another square sticker, certifying gas quality was checked.

Officials in Summit County wrapped up their first round of gas-quality testing last month after the program was approved a year ago. But Summit County, because of its charter form of “home rule” government, is the only county in Ohio to have such a program.

Mary Margaret Rowlands, legal counsel to the Summit County Fiscal Office, said they had 100 percent compliance, and problems were “corrected within hours.”

Summit County inspectors checked for octane, octane labels, sediment and water, and also inspected spill rims for debris.

Of the 230 stations checked, 26 water violations were found, 35 labels were missing and three octane failures were confirmed by lab tests.

The gasoline samples are tested in partnership with the University of Akron’s chemistry department.

“They get their testing done by chemists, and I get samples for my research,” said Eric Bodle, a chemistry doctoral candidate who works with professor James Hardy on the project.

Bodle uses the gas samples for his research on tracking patterns for an arson record database. From fire patterns scientists are able to tell what octane the gasoline was and possibly from what supply it might have come.

Bodle and Hardy test the samples for octane and flashpoint and take care of waste management. Only if preliminary tests point to a problem do they ship the sample to an external lab.

Roger Dreyer is a Kent State graduate and president of the Ohio Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, a trade group for distributors and marketers from the refineries to the street.

Dreyer said refiners and distributors already do quality testing, and his organization supports the Ohio Department of Agriculture heading up the program.

“We’re really for this, but we want it done right,” he said.

If every county auditor has different testing rules, it will only cause price increases and shortages, he said.

But Summit County’s program shows testing won’t cause price increases, State Sen. Tim Grendell (R-Chesterland) said.

Grendell, who is running for Ohio Attorney General in 2006, is working on a bill to allow – but not require – counties to test gasoline for quality.

Just as Summit County finished up its testing, he drove through the area and saw gas prices were 20 cents cheaper than in Geauga County, he said.

This will be his third time introducing gas quality legislation, and this new bill will take into account some of Summit County’s tactics. In his plan, the state would oversee testing, but counties would have to pick up the tab. He hopes to introduce the bill in the next two weeks.

“I think it would be good to let Summit County’s program go a little while and see how that goes,” said State Sen. Kimberly Zurz (D-Green). “Before the state jumps into something like that, we need to look at what other states are doing and what the costs are.”

Summit County officials went to West Virginia and Michigan to research their programs and expenditures while developing the testing program.

Kentucky’s gas testing program began about a decade ago, after the state became known as a dumping ground for shoddy gas, said Lanny Arnold, the assistant division director for Weights and Measures in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Arnold said consumers are pleased with the program.

“We get calls all the time if people think they got bad fuel,” he said.

And gas sellers didn’t protest.

“Most of them wanted us to test it because if a customer got bad fuel, they weren’t repeat business,” Arnold said.

About 35 inspectors test the approximately 3,500 stations in Kentucky about every two years, Arnold said.

The first year of the program, about 20 percent of gas stations had violations, but now violations are found at 1 percent or 2 percent of the stations, he said.

The program is funded in part by a $50 motor fuel license fee charged to every gas station in Kentucky.

If a violation is found, the station is immediately shut down and a fine is issued based on the amount of gas in storage. What is done with the gas depends on what the problem is: Water-tainted gasoline must be disposed of, but if octane is too low, additional gas can be added to blend up. The station can only sell gas again after it’s been retested.

“You have to have some confidence in whoever is making sure they’re getting what they pay for,” Arnold said. “Whether it be quality or quantity.”

Contact public affairs reporter Grace Dobush at [email protected].