Gas-station inspectors stretched thin

Published: Monday, March 31 2003 12:00 a.m. MST

The customer was adamant he was being cheated.

The gas pump indicated he had pumped five gallons of gas into a five-gallon gas can. Yet the can was nowhere near full. So the station was clearly shorting him on gas, right?

Weights and Measures inspectors with the Utah Department of Agriculture responded immediately to the customer's complaint, putting the pump through rigorous tests as the customer watched. The pump tested dead-on accurate.

The inspectors then tested the man's gas five-gallon can, which turned out to be a six-gallon container.

In this case, the customer isn't always right.

But there are hundreds of times every year when gas pumps are cheating customers. And there are just as many times where the pumps are cheating the store owner by giving away gas.

Just how error-free are Utah's gas stations?

A three-month Deseret News review of station inspections shows roughly 1,800 pumps failed state inspections by the Utah Department of Agriculture from 2000 to 2002.

Some 26 percent of the stations tested by the state over the past three years failed one or more inspections because pumps or storage tanks did not meet state requirements.

But that reflects only those tested.

The Deseret News found that three out of every 10 stations in the state have not had any state inspections during the past three years.

More bark than bite

The department has a program goal that all of Utah's 1,209 stations will be inspected every year, but it doesn't come close. Last year, 39 percent of all stations were inspected; in 2000, it was only 22 percent.

And only about half the time did a failed inspection result in a follow-up visit to make sure the problems were fixed. The poor follow-up record may be due, at least in part, to the station's problems being fixed while the inspector was still there but not noted in the inspection report, state officials said.

Data on the Web

See data from inspections of stores and fuel outlets in your area

The inspection of pumps and tanks is one of the department's highest priorities, ranking only behind scale inspections in terms of effort expended (48 percent of scales were inspected in 2002, compared to 34 percent of pumps).

"It is a high priority, but we just don't have the manpower to get out to every station every year," said Brett Gurney, head of the department's Weights and Measures Program. "We are overwhelmed."

Indeed, they are. There are only six inspectors statewide who are qualified to check on an estimated 31,000 pumps and almost 3,000 underground fuel tanks in the state.

The state program is clearly geared toward helping stations fix problem pumps, rather than punishing stations that fail inspections, no matter how often they fail.

It is not uncommon for inspectors to revisit the same station three and four times on the same problem. In the case of one 7-Eleven in Heber City, inspectors returned six times in 2000, failing the store all six times for water in its storage tanks. The station never did pass in 2000, and inspectors did not return for 22 months (it passed its 2002 inspection).

At the Tesoro on North Temple, inspectors returned seven times from August 2002 on pump and tank problems before the station finally passed last December.

While the inspection program nominally has a "zero tolerance" for errors, Gurney admits that are slightly different tolerance levels for older pumps than those that are new. "It depends on the situation at the station," he said.

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