In Focus: High Prices and Quality Questions at the Pump

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Consumer price control is a big issue in many aspects of the economy in Appalachia, including how much we pay to get from place to place.  But drivers in Ohio may be facing another obstacle at the pump: they may not be getting what they pay for.

County auditors across the state supervise testing gasoline pumps in their counties for volume, to make sure that when you pay for a gallon of gas, you get a gallon of gas.  But that testing says nothing about the quality of the gasoline.

No Fuel Quality Testing

Ohio is one of only four states in the U.S. that doesn’t regularly test fuel quality. The other states are Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Alaska.  Hocking County sealer Jeff Hunter said that the lack of a fuel quality testing policy in Ohio could mean that the less desirable fuel from other states has been brought across state lines.

"If you reject it in Kentucky or West Virginia, they’re going to bring it over here and drop it somewhere. Somebody here will buy it,” Hunter said. “So fuel quality is something that should be addressed and hasn’t been. You don’t know if you’re getting your octane or not.”

Athens County auditor Jill Thompson has been a longtime advocate of fuel quality testing in the region and in the state. She helped get the original bill passed in 2007 and said she hopes a budget will be passed soon. “There was no budget passed to actually enforce it. The law was written quite vague,” Thompson said. “To my knowledge it still has not been enforced and at that point, we wanted to work with the state to actually begin to test octane for quality.”

Thompson said she’s concerned about some of the substances that may enter Ohio’s fuel more easily.  “One of the largest concerns that I have in Southeastern Ohio, especially with the climate, is, as you know, we’ve had a lot of rain. And when we have those floods there’s concern about water getting into some of the tanks,” said Thompson, who added that fuel testing for contamination from the elements is one of the cheaper testing methods available. “Sediment is always an issue, as well as water.”

Ohio state senator Frank LaRose is one lawmaker who has taken steps to further investigate the issues surrounding fuel quality testing. LaRose hails from Summit County, which is currently the only county in Ohio to mandate quality control. County leaders approved and funded the testing in 2005 and have been testing ever since.

Although Ohio passed a measure to begin testing for fuel quality in 2007, funding to implement the tests was never passed. LaRose said this may be because a quality testing program would be very expensive for the state and would not necessarily produce conclusive results. “Their assessment at the department is that the potential cost of having inspectors drive around the state and inspect fuel is not justifiable based upon what they believe to be the level of the problem,” said LaRose.

LaRose said he only began looking into the issue last year, but he believes that it’s something that should be investigated, beginning with some preliminary tests.“If we have a high number of tests that come back with bad fuel, then it’s something that maybe we should look at doing,” said LaRose, who is talking with the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture about possibly commissioning a fuel quality study. “Then we’ll have to look at appropriating the funds in order to fund that program.”

But Neil Stanton, vice-president of refining at Ergon, West Virginia, doesn't think state-mandated testing will have much of an impact. “Because of the vast distribution for gasoline, gasoline quality is pretty well established at the refining level,” Stanton said. “So the level of testing performed by the state, I don't know about the significance of that unless the gasoline should be compromised somehow in the distribution process,” Stanton said.

According to an article written by Hamilton County auditor candidate Dusty Rhodes, when a news station in Cleveland did independent tests on twelve local pumps to measure fuel quality in the area, there was a failure rate of 25 percent, showing that consumers paying for high octane fuel were getting regular octane fuel in a number of cases.

But until Ohio passes a budget to fund these tests on a regular basis, fuel quality in the state will remain unchecked.  And for people in Southeast Ohio, dealing with tough economic times, getting the best fuel for their money is important.  Belinda Vogt who owns the Coolville Cool Spot, says she tries to keep the price of gas down at the Cool Spot because money is tight, and people in the area typically have to drive several miles to get to jobs, school and shopping.