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Tainted gas gums up fuel gauges

Shell and Texaco stations unknowingly pumped high sulfur gasoline that can lead to expensive repairs.

By JEAN HELLER
Published May 29, 2004

Sales of Shell and Texaco gasolines in several areas of Florida, including Tampa Bay, were suspended Friday because high levels of sulfur contaminated the fuel and threatened expensive damage to gasoline gauges.

About 500 stations in Florida, 118 of them in the Tampa Bay area and the rest in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota, were forced to close or to limit their sales to premium grades. Another 120 stations were affected in the New Orleans area.

The situation began to return to normal Friday evening, though several station owners in this region said they had been told that operations would not be completely normal until Sunday night or Monday morning.

Premium gasoline sold in this area was not contaminated. Consumers found unusual bargains at their neighborhood stations because Shell Oil told its managers to sell their clean premium gasoline at regular gas prices.

Nazir Ahmad hadn't seen many smiling customers leaving his Shell station on Roosevelt Boulevard in St. Petersburg recently. People aren't happy spending $2 or more a gallon for gasoline. But Friday there was a difference.

"They're getting premium gasoline for the price of regular, and that's a 20-cent-a-gallon saving," Ahmad said. "It makes people feel better about filling up."

Premium fuel at Ahmad's station had been priced at $2.19 a gallon on Thursday. Friday it was selling at $1.99.

But Joe Mansour, who owns four Shell stations in South Tampa, said he lost "thousands and thousands of dollars" on what would normally have been the busiest gas-selling day of the year.

"We sold the premium at regular prices, and we sold out quickly," Mansour said. "Insurance will cover the losses, I hope."

The Houston-based Shell Oil Co., which also sells gas under the Texaco brand, learned on Thursday that gasoline coming out of the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Norco, La., was contaminated with excess sulfur. Motiva is the refining subsidiary of Shell in the East and South.

Sulfur occurs naturally in crude oil, but most of it is supposed to be removed during refining.

On Thursday, only mid-grade and regular gasoline distributed from the Motiva facility in Port Everglades was thought to be tainted, but on Friday, Shell officials learned premium was contaminated as well.

This area's supplies are distributed from Tampa, where only mid-grade and regular were affected. Local stations could stay open and sell premium.

Late Friday, Shell announced it had started distributing clean gasoline all across Florida again.

"All the gas now being sold in the Tampa Bay area is top-quality," said company spokesman Johan Zaayman. "The tainted gas has been removed from the storage tanks and taken back for further refining."

Shell learned of the problem when it began getting reports from motorists that they had run out of gas when their fuel gauges showed they still had an ample supply, or that gauges stopped working completely.

Gas tanks have a float ball that rises and falls with the fuel level. An electrical system reads the float ball level and transmits the information to the dashboard fuel gauge. The system uses silver electrical contacts, which can be corroded quickly by sulfur.

Replacing the system is a complex project that can cost from $400 to $600 and more on some models.

Zaayman said an investigation was under way to determine if the contamination resulted from sulfur seeping into the gasoline after refining or from a refining failure to remove it.

A similar problem with another gasoline brand occurred in Kentucky earlier this month.

Sulfur-contaminated gasoline from a Marathon Ashland Petroleum distribution terminal has been blamed for a rash of gas-gauge failures in the Louisville area. Hundreds of drivers have been affected since May 3, according to the company.

Marathon Ashland supplied fuel to 35 Speedway stores in Louisville, but other brand-name stations might have gotten bad gas through independent distributors.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

WATCH THAT GAUGE

Shell asks customers experiencing unusual gas gauge readings to monitor their mileage or to keep fuel tanks filled to avoid running out. Customers who think their vehicles' fuel gauges have been affected by gasoline originating from Motiva Terminals can contact Shell Customer Service Center at 1-866-562-6690 or file a claim online at www.interactclaims.com/shell

[Last modified May 29, 2004, 01:00:33]


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