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Times-Picayune: Company can’t say which locations sold the tainted gasoline

Times-Picayune: Company can’t say which locations sold the tainted gasoline

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

By Stewart Yerton

Business writer

Posted 16 June 04

More than two weeks after a batch of tainted gasoline caused Shell Oil Co. to temporarily close pumps at nearly 200 gas stations in the New Orleans region, the company has released a list of stations that received the gas from a Shell refinery. But the company still cannot say for sure which stations sold the bad fuel.

Late last week, after repeated requests, Shell released a list of Shell and Texaco stations that received the problem fuel from the Norco refinery operated by Shell’s U.S. refining arm, Motiva Enterprises LLC. But Shell says the list, which includes 162 New Orleans-region stations that received the tainted gas, is not conclusive, and the company issued several qualifying statements along with the list.

Shell also reported that 33 New Orleans-area stations that sell Shell and Texaco brands did not receive the bad gas.

Notwithstanding its flaws, the list is the only document Shell has made public indicating which of its gas stations might have sold the tainted fuel.

The gasoline, which contains high levels of elemental sulfur, can make fuel gauges malfunction, possibly causing unsuspecting drivers to run out of gas. Although Shell says it has flushed out the gas station storage tanks that were affected and filled them with fresh gasoline, many drivers have sought a list of stations that sold the bad fuel to help them determine if their cars are vulnerable.

The list of stations provided by Shell includes “those stations where Motiva believes its gasoline was supplied during the affected time period,” said Shawn Frederick, a Shell spokesman. But the list doesn’t say which stations sold problem gasoline.

For example, Frederick said, some of the bad gasoline might have been mixed with other gasoline in storage tanks at the gas stations. This blending, he said, could have diluted the bad gas enough that it would not hurt a car’s gas gauge.

Also, Frederick said, just because a station received the bad gas, that doesn’t mean the station sold it, or, if so, for how long.

Shell’s list also fails to include some stations operating under different brands that bought the gas from Motiva and might have resold it. About 40 Chevron stations, a handful of ExxonMobil stations and some independent stations also received the gas.

Finally, Shell’s list leaves out dates of when the gasoline was delivered to the stations.

On May 26, Shell announced it temporarily had suspended the sale of gasoline at 108 company-owned stations in the New Orleans region. Later, the company said it also had closed pumps at about 90 independently owned stations, bringing the total to 198. Although Shell restored service at all but a handful of stations by May 30, the incident left drivers in a cloud of uncertainty as they took to the highways for trips during the Memorial Day weekend.

The new information also indicates that Shell erred on the side of caution in handling the situation. Although the company closed pumps at 198 stations, at least 33 of those stations had not received the bad gas.

Among those welcoming the list of stations is John Taylor of Covington. Taylor said he’s noticed problems with the fuel gauges on his 2002 Chevrolet Silverado pick-up and 1996 Chevrolet Corsica. But Taylor said clerks at the Shell stations in Covington and Mandeville where he normally buys gas told him that the stations hadn’t been affected.

The stations, in fact, are on the list.

Taylor said that knowing the stations received bad gasoline from Motiva “gives me a little peace of mind” as he prepares to file a claim asking Shell to pay to repair his vehicles.

Shell has agreed to pay for repairs and as of last week had received about 30,000 claims from drivers in Louisiana and Florida. Some gasoline from the Norco refinery was sent to Florida and sold from Port Everglades and Tampa stations.

Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti’s office refused requests to release information it had concerning locations that might have sold the bad gasoline. Initially, a spokeswoman said the attorney general would not release the list because of “attorney client privilege.” Later, in denying a request filed under the Louisiana Public Records Act for a list of stations “where . . . problem gasoline was sold,” Isabel Wingerter, chief of Foti’s consumer protection section, wrote, “We have no conclusive list that identifies those stations.”

In an interview, Wingerter said the information Foti’s office had obtained would be useless to consumers.

“You’ve got the same list in your telephone book,” she said. “It lists every Shell station. That doesn’t mean every Shell station sold bad gas.”

Not all of the area’s stations were on the list released by Shell. In any case, Wingerter said, consumers don’t need a list to know if they bought bad gasoline.

“If they got bad gas, they know it,” she said.

Stewart Yerton can be reached at [email protected]

or (504) 826-3495.

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