Iowa shirking on gas quality tests

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Iowa consumers may have to watch out for more than high prices at the gas pumps.

Station owners have few regulations to follow to keep them from shortchanging customers on the quality of gas they're getting, according to a copyright story in the Des Moines Sunday Register.

While competition for fuel profit increases, the state of Iowa has continued to do less than most other states in assuring that customers get the gas they're paying for at the pump.

Many states are conducting regular fuel tests to deter deceptive tactics and protect consumers from buying the wrong gas, which can hurt a car's mileage and performance.

"It's absolutely a deterrent," said Ron Hayes, administrator of Missouri's fuel-quality program. "If there is a chance to misrepresent the product without getting caught, there is an incentive to cheat. Those who can undercut their competition can make more money."

State law requires Iowa's Weights and Measures Bureau, part of the Iowa Department of Agriculture, to test fuel quality on behalf of Iowans. However, a recent state audit showed that the bureau has not performed the laboratory tests for years.

What's happened instead is that state inspectors have developed a gentleman's agreement with Missouri to test fuel for Iowa.

Only a tiny fraction of Iowa's 33,000 gas pumps at 2,800 service stations are reportedly getting tested.

A budget request filed recently by the bureau showed that the annual number of tests was about 50 and "only when a special investigation is under way."

"Iowa currently has virtually no basic fuel quality program," the bureau's request admits.

Authorities in other states said station owners have been mislabeling pumps or putting cheaper fuel in storage tanks intended for higher-priced gas. And, there's more incentive to mislead customers as gas prices soar.

"Any time gas prices go up, we receive more complaints," said Tim Tyson, who heads Kansas' weights and measures department.

Many other states test thousands of samples each year from their pumps. Any questionable samples are sent to accredited laboratories for analysis. Iowa has just one machine to sample gas octane levels, and only one inspector knows how to use it, said Steve Pedersen, chief of the Weights and Measures Bureau.

Pedersen said of the few tests the state requests "it's been very rare that we've found anything."

Iowa has six inspectors who visit gas retailers statewide to assure state laws are followed and fuel is properly labeled, he added.

Unless the attorney general's office sues, Pedersen said stations mislabeling gas are likely to simply receive a "cease and desist" order.

The Register reported it found that inspectors know of other examples of fuel misdeeds despite the small amount testing that's conducted. At least two stations in eastern Iowa are being investigated for misrepresenting fuel, Pedersen conceded to the newspaper during its investigation.

"We have been consulting the attorney general's office in those cases," he said, adding that the bureau closely watches six to a dozen stations at any one time.

Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge said until recently, her agency lacked a proper lab to perform the scientific tests.

"The state's old laboratory did not lend itself to that kind of testing," she said. "But with our new laboratory on (the Des Moines Area Community College) campus, we will have more of an ability to be a full-service facility."

She said her office plans to ask the Legislature for $103,000 to buy the equipment needed to perform more fuel-quality tests and to hire a technician.

Consumer complaints show the number of fuel tests on Iowa's pumps increased to at least 25 through October this year, up from 11 in all of last year.

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