Michigan Gas Station Pumps Fuel ‘Grossly Contaminated’ With Water, Kills Car

ABC News Fixer gets Shell into action, shares secret tip for avoiding bad pumps.

March 21, 2014 — -- Dear ABC News Fixer: I filled my gas tank with fuel that was contaminated with water, causing more than $1,300 in damage to my car – and now the Shell station won’t reimburse me.

It happened Nov. 8. Within a mile of the gas station, my car was completely dead. I had it towed to the dealer, who found the gas tank was full of dirty water. I immediately filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Agriculture. An inspector went to the gas station the next day and found that the premium fuel was grossly contaminated with water. He said the owner told him the pump was turned off for “routine maintenance,” but he found someone pumping water out of the underground fuel tank. The State of Michigan fined the gas station.

I presented this information to Shell and they basically told me to take it to court. I think it’s shameful that Shell, which makes billions of dollars a year, refuses to take responsibility for damage to my vehicle that was clearly caused by faulty fuel from one of their stations.

- Joe Yaklic, Chesterfield, Mich.

Got a consumer problem? The ABC News Fixer may be able to help. Click here to submit your problem online. Letters are edited for length and clarity.

Dear Joe: We were perplexed, too. It stretched logic that your 2010 Corvette would poop out just after leaving the gas station with its gas tank full of water -- unless you got that water at said gas station. We wondered if perhaps Shell didn’t consider the whole story.

We pored over the inspection reports and spoke with Craig VanBuren, director of the consumer protection section at the Michigan Department of Agriculture, who oversaw this case. He told us that in addition to his inspector finding that a vendor had pumped out 800 gallons of water from the underground tank, they determined that the tank contained 5.5 inches of water -- above the 2 inches allowed under Michigan law. The state also tested two samples of gas, from two different days, both of which came back as contaminated with water. The state issued a stop-sale order and $2,350 in fines.

The situation was complicated because the station is independently owned and receives its gas through a wholesale distributor. But we figured Shell, with its name and logo on the station, would have the ability to get this fixed.

And we were right. After we showed all your proof to Shell, they sprang into action. The next morning, you got a call from the distributor, who apologized several times and promised to pay for all your damages. You also heard from a wholesale sales manager at Shell, who said he wanted to make sure everything was being handled.

A few days later, the refund from the distributor arrived: a total of $1,916.45 -- $1,362.50 for the repair, $57.95 for the gas purchase and $496 for your missed day of work dealing with the problem.

A short while after that, the sales manager from Shell sent you a package containing two $25 Shell gift cards, a Shell coat and a Shell hat, along with a note saying they appreciate your business.So now this is really fixed.

A couple things we learned from this:

Filling up your car with water is a pretty rare occurrence, but we’re told consumers can reduce the risk by not using a pump where a tanker truck is refilling the storage tank. There is often a little water in that underground tank – for example, up to 2 inches is allowed under Michigan law – and it’s normally not a problem, since water is heavier than gas and it stays at the bottom of the tank. But if the underground tank is being filled just as you use the pump, there’s a chance the water could slosh up and get mixed in.

If you suspect you’ve pumped water into your car, act quickly. Document everything. Keep your receipt and know the pump number and time of purchase. Immediately call your state’s weights and measures inspectors (often part of the state Department of Agriculture). Ask them to send an inspector right away.

Take the car to a certified mechanic, and if they find water in the gas, ask them to keep a sample of the contaminated fuel. Document the chain of evidence in case you need to have the sample tested for a court battle. And call your insurance company.

- The ABC News Fixer

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