New system in the works to track shortchanging gas pumps

Posted Oct. 14, 2011, at 11:35 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 14, 2011, at 7:42 p.m.
In this May 4, 2010 photo, Carlton Blanche, a state consumer protection inspector, carries a calibrated test measuring can by a fuel pump at a gas station in Maine.  The state has shut down gas pumps at several locations because the pumps were shortchanging motorists.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
In this May 4, 2010 photo, Carlton Blanche, a state consumer protection inspector, carries a calibrated test measuring can by a fuel pump at a gas station in Maine. The state has shut down gas pumps at several locations because the pumps were shortchanging motorists.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Following reports that numerous gas stations were shortchanging customers, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb says his agency is working to obtain a modern computerized record-keeping system for its inspectors. Lawmakers are eager to hear steps are being taken to make sure gas station pumps are adequately inspected in the future.

Whitcomb said memos from his office to Gov. Paul LePage had mentioned several instances of inspectors finding gas pumps at different gas stations that were so far out of alignment they were ordered shut off until they could be repaired.

Whitcomb acknowledged that while his staff does not believe the problem with gas pump errors is widespread, he cannot answer the question definitively because the data is not kept in a system that allows users to find that information.

“We know it is a problem and we are working to fix it,” he said. “Believe me, it is a high priority.

“We are having what I think you can describe as intense discussions with the [information technology] people,” he said. “There would not have been a news story about this if we could have answered the simple question about how many other pumps were as far off as the one quoted in the memo.”

Whitcomb said he and other agency officials have received calls and emails from citizens upset about the situation and from gas station owners and operators concerned as well.

Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, a trade group that represents many gas stations, is pleased the department is addressing the situation.

“We know from talking with our members that these large errors are rare,” he said. “It is important for the public to know that.”

He said the inability of the department to state with any certainty what their testing shows hurts all gas stations. He said some of his members have reported angry consumers complaining after news reports of the malfunctioning gas pumps.

“It is very important that consumers have confidence they are getting what they pay for,” he said.

Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, the House co-chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said he has heard from his constituents because of the high gas prices in Aroostook County.

“We are paying 30 to 40 cents a gallon more than people in southern Maine,” he said, “so pumps that are off has a lot of people up this way very upset.”

Edgecomb said the committee is planning to meet at the end of the month to hear from the study group looking at possible changes to the Land Use Regulation Commission. He said Agriculture officials will likely be asked to explain to the panel at that meeting what they plan to do to assure the public that gas pumps are accurate, or where problems still exist.

“I think that it is important that we talk about this and how to fix the problem,” said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, who serves on the committee. “We need to make sure that the public can be assured that they are really getting what they pay for at the pump.”

She said the problem the department and the Legislature will face is money. She said a new data system or additional inspectors will have a cost.

“I am not sure there will be support to pay for a database or hire new inspectors if we are also cutting other programs, particularly education,” she said. “We will have a lot of demands and not a lot of resources.”

Whitcomb said he does not know how much a new computer system will cost and said that he is not proposing any additional staff.

He also said there was a math error in the Sept. 9 memo to Gov. LePage on one set of pumps at one gas station. He said the inspector failed to adjust the math to reflect that the test was conducted with a five-gallon can. This was at a large station with 12 nozzles, six of which were ordered shutdown because they were out of tolerance, as reported in the Oct. 2 story.

“It was a mistake that made it look worse than it was,” he said, “but it was still pretty bad.”

Whitcomb said he is determined to make sure there is an adequate system in place to track inspections.

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