La. agriculture official: Exxon’s bad fuel totals 5 million gallons

More than 5 million gallons of gasoline shipped from the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge terminal in mid-March was tainted by something that is causing the intake and valve systems of vehicles to gum up, Louisiana’s commissioner of agriculture and forestry said Thursday.

Commissioner Mike Strain said he’s been speaking “almost every hour” with Exxon officials since late Wednesday about the bad fuel. The problem is contained to two batches of gasoline shipped between March 12 and March 15. The two batches had a total of 120,000 barrels of gasoline.

Without much explanation Wednesday, ExxonMobil said it had shut down its Baton Rouge terminal gasoline loading racks while it investigates a “potential issue” with fuel being sold at select locations around the Baton Rouge area. The company notified the Department of Agriculture on Wednesday, said Veronica Mosgrove, a spokeswoman with the department.

The company said Thursday that the terminal remains closed.

ExxonMobil said it is working with Exxon-branded stations and other wholesale fuel customers to ensure a continued supply of fuel for motorists.

About half of the gasoline sold in metro Baton Rouge comes from the Exxon terminal, Strain said.

“What we think is something got in the fuel that shouldn’t have gotten in,” Strain said. Agents from the Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s weights and measures division are testing gasoline from several Baton Rouge gas stations for a variety of things, from sulphur content, to octane, to flash point in an attempt to find out what the substance is. Exxon quality product managers are working with the state on the tests, Strain said. “We need to know exactly what compound we are dealing with,” he said.

Since Friday, Strain said his office has received 24 complaints from consumers about bad fuel. All of the calls have come from metro Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

Exxon said that since mid-March, there have been several other batches of fuel from the Baton Rouge terminal that have entered the market that flushed the pumps of the fuel in question from service stations.

“We are taking this matter seriously and are investigating the issue to determine the cause,” the company said in a brief statement. “We want customers to know that the fuel currently at stations meets Louisiana’s stringent regulatory requirements and is safe for use in vehicles.”

The company also directed anyone with questions about fuel purchased in the Baton Rouge area to call ExxonMobil North America Customer Care at (855) 300-2659.

“We stand by our products, and we are 100 percent committed to working with our customers and motorists to honor valid claims,” the company said.

The president of a Baton Rouge automotive shop said Thursday he’s seen “40 or 50” cases in the past week of motorists getting bad fuel.

Louis Altazan, of AGCO Automotive, a Coursey Boulevard maintenance and repair business, said drivers have come in with complaints about their vehicles not starting right in the morning. Altazan said complaints have come from people who bought gas at a number of different stations, as far away as New Orleans and Slidell.

The number of complaints coming into AGCO has slowed down, Altazan said, leading him to speculate the bad fuel is working its way out of the market.

Exxon makes gasoline for a number of other companies at its Baton Rouge refinery, not just for stations that carry its brand name — blending the fuel to the specifications of a gasoline distributor, Altazan said.

“It’s a cocktail,” said Altazan, who thinks the problem may have to do with some incompatibility in the chemicals in the gasoline.

The Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, in Alexandria, Va., notes on its website that about 45 percent of retail gasoline facilities nationally are operated by independent business owners who do not sell gasoline under a brand name owned or controlled by a refining company. These retailers purchase gasoline from the unbranded wholesale market, obtaining their gasoline at a terminal, known as “the rack.”

Most of the remaining 55 percent of retail gasoline facilities that sell one of the top 20 brands of fuel are also operated by independent businesses, but those owners sign a supply contract and sell the gasoline under a brand owned or controlled by a refining company.

Less than 5 percent of retail gasoline outlets in the United States are owned and operated by the major oil companies, the association says.

As for the problems motorists are experiencing, “There may be a misfire, or the vehicle will be hard to start,” said Altazan, who also hosts a radio show about auto repairs on WJBO. “In some cases, the vehicle won’t start at all.”

Altazan said it’s a “minor fix” to remedy the problem that involves cleaning valves and changing fuel filters. The repairs cost up to $100 or $200 in most cases, and no permanent damage is done to the vehicle’s engine.

“The problems depend on how much fuel is in the vehicle and the condition of the engine,” he said. In vehicles with healthy engines and not a lot of fuel in the tank, the problems aren’t as severe.

In some cases, drivers have been able to work out the problems by diluting the bad fuel with more gas, Altazan said.

At service stations around Baton Rouge, several motorists said they either weren’t concerned or hadn’t heard the reports of possibly bad fuel.

Ronnie Richard of Baton Rouge said he wasn’t concerned about buying Exxon gasoline.