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Thousands say gas damaged fuel tanks

More than 12,000 people in Florida and two other states filed claims alleging Chevron, Texaco and Shell gas led to costly fixes.

Published June 12, 2004

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Marc Smith of Tampa, 22, left, and R.J. Brennan of Lutz, 32, install the gas tank on a 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier at Gordon Chevrolet after Brennan replaced the fuel level sensor Thursday. The sensor was damaged by Shell fuel contaminated with high sulfur levels.

For information
If you think your car was affected:
Shell/Motiva: 1-888-502-7323 or the Web site has a claim form and a list of repair stations where Shell will not require an estimate be done
Chevron Texaco: 1-800-362-8900
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: 1-800-435-7352

The bad gasoline corrodes the delicate silver circuitry in gas gauge sensors found in most vehicles and makes the gauges read "full." Shell Oil advised those who suspect they bought the high-sulfur gas to watch their fuel gauges if they move erratically or not at all. The company has said it will pay for repairs, which some mechanics say can cost as much as $400 to $600 depending on the vehicle's make and model.

Palm Harbor resident Teresa Amoddio used to fill her gas tank at the same Shell station.

That was before contaminated gas left her with a hefty repair bill and a load of anxiety. Twice. The first time it cost her $545.70, the second $612.63.

Now she fills up at Hess.

"I didn't even think about the gas, because you get gas every day," Amoddio said. "You just assume and trust the gas you get is good for your car."

Amoddio is one of more than 12,000 residents of Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana who recently have filed claims alleging their fuel tanks were damaged after they bought gas at Shell, Texaco or Chevron stations, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The gas was sold at more than 600 stations in Florida, including about 150 in the Tampa Bay area. High levels of sulfur contaminated the fuel, leaving a trail of damaged cars and short tempers.

Frustrated customers said they face repair bills for anywhere from $300 to $900 and had doubts about getting reimbursed. Dozens of cars with broken fuel gauges have arrived at repair shops, and the state enacted an emergency rule to test for sulfur.

At least two lawsuits have been filed, and the horror stories keep mounting.

Amoddio, for example, has two repair receipts because her gas gauge broke the first time just before Shell announced the problem. Her mechanic repaired her car with contaminated gas still in it.

Now, Amoddio is afraid to go on vacation because she's worried that she won't be reimbursed for the repairs.

Then there's Tom Lemons, who learned of his problem under the worst of circumstances.

The contaminated gas made his gauge stick. So he had no idea his tank was empty when the car slowed to a stop at 11 on a Saturday night on the Howard Frankland Bridge.

Lemons had heard about the contaminated gas, but didn't know the station where he bought gas every week was affected.

"From the time I filled it up until the time it ran out, I never thought it would be a problem," he said.

The contaminated gas came from Motiva Enterprises, the refining subsidiary of Shell in the East and South. Most of it was sold at Shell, Texaco and Chevron stations.

Chevron, which has more than 90 bay area stations that sold the gas, received claims from 3,106 people, including 1,095 people from the bay area, a company spokesman said.

Other gas customers also were affected.

Costco bought contaminated gas from a supplier that had bought gas from Motiva. It sold that gas to about 3,300 people over five days at its Clearwater store.

Other stations also may have sold some gas provided by suppliers who bought from Motiva, said Karyn Leonardi-Cattolica, spokeswoman for Shell Oil Products US/Motiva.

Florida consumer officials said they have not confirmed reports from other gas stations, but said customers who suspect their cars were damaged elsewhere should call Shell, then the state's consumer line.

Shell has apologized and sent claims adjusters to Florida, and this week set up a network of service centers where people can get repairs made without having estimates done.

"We are working very hard to process claims related to the recent gas gauge issues because we value our customers and want them to get their vehicles fixed quickly and be compensated promptly," Leonardi-Cattolica said in an e-mail.

Crude oil contains sulfur, but it is supposed to be removed when the oil is processed. The excess sulfur damages cars by corroding silver electrical contacts that sense how full the gas tank is.

Similar problems have occurred in the last year in Toronto and Lexington, Ky., Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said in a letter to Motiva's CEO. Bronson wants an explanation of how the gas was contaminated.

"I am disappointed and alarmed that this was allowed to occur," he wrote.

One Tampa Bay area family is doubly aware of the problem.

Palm Harbor resident Ursula Cochran learned her gauge was broken when her Dodge Neon broke down just after crossing busy U.S. 19. Her repair estimate was almost $900.

Cochran's son, Lane Ferguson, has an estimate for his Mitsubishi Gallant that's just more than $900.

"I guess that's what you get," Ferguson said, "when you both live near a Shell gas station."

[Last modified June 11, 2004, 23:45:27]

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