RICHMOND, VA --- From June 8 to July 7 of this year, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) received more than 500 complaints about high levels of ethanol in gasoline sold in the state's Tidewater area.  

Many consumers reported that their vehicles were performing poorly after they filled their tanks, the department said in a press release. VDACS' Office of Product and Industry Standards (OPIS) began inspecting gas stations for which they had complaints and found several instances of excessive levels of ethanol. Eight OPIS inspectors are dedicating their full attention to these investigations. As of July 7, 2009 inspectors had investigated 457 of the 532 complaints received by VDACS, involving a significant number of retail locations. 

Although the number of complaints and telephone inquiries had abated somewhat by the week of July 6, VDACS said it continues to receive reports from consumers who are concerned about the quality of the gasoline they purchased. The vast majority of the fuel sampled by the inspectors was found to be in compliance, and OPIS inspectors only issued five "stop sale" orders. The affected pumps were sealed out of service and labeled with a prominent tag.  

In every one of the five cases, the retailers took action to ensure that their fuel was brought into compliance, the department said. Upon subsequent testing by OPIS inspectors, the "stop sale" orders were lifted. In fewer than 10 other instances, inspectors determined that retailers who took delivery of suspect fuel had voluntarily closed their pumps and had the fuel pumped out and replenished with fresh gasoline. 

During a typical investigation of a gasoline quality complaint, an inspector gathers records about recent deliveries of fuel at the station and asks station management if the station has received other complaints. The inspector also determines how much fuel is on hand by either using the station's electronic readout or by dipping the tank with a fuel stick coated with detection paste. 

To test for ethanol, the inspector purges the fuel lines first and then collects a sample. Using a field test kit, the inspector can determine if the fuel contains excessive ethanol, water or sediment. If the sample is non-compliant, the fuel is put under a "stop sale" order, an official sample is drawn for laboratory analysis. and the dispenser is tagged and taken out of service. Whenever a stop sale order is issued, only an OPIS inspector or supervisor can remove the tags and release the fuel for sale. 

OPIS said it is actively investigating all complaints received, not only at the retail level, but also with various distributors and terminal operators. The findings are being reviewed for possible compliance action in accordance with the provisions of Virginia's Motor Fuels and Lubricating Oils Law.