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Fuel error forced costly repairs

Ashland’s Astro 76 gas station’s underground diesel tank was mistakenly filled with gasoline, which was then pumped into several diesel vehicles in the last week of January, doing enough damage that they had to get their fuel systems replaced at considerable cost, according to consumer and mechanic accounts.

The corporation that owns the station at the intersection of East Main Street and Lithia Way, WSCO, promptly paid for repairs of several late model vehicles at valley dealerships, they report, but at least one car owner, Linette Sophie of Ashland, got her fuel system replaced but is not happy with the settlement and fears her engine will be at risk in the future.

Joe Tate, general manager of BMW in Medford, says they replaced fuel systems on three fairly new vehicles at a cost of $16,000 to $20,000 each, but it took them a while to figure out what was wrong with them.

“It just didn’t make sense,” he said. “They shouldn’t have engine problems, but they did. We traced it to that Ashland gas station. Someone had put gas in their in-ground diesel tank. We informed our other Lithia Motors stores to watch out for the situation.

“We didn’t have any problem getting payment and our customers were happy they (motorists) were not liable for it. It’s a bad situation. Gasoline will just ruin the fuel system, but our customers had no problem (after repairs).”

Jerod Hurnblad, service manager of Volkswagen in Medford, said they repaired two vehicles at a cost of $5,000 to $6,000 each. This involved replacement of fuel pump, fuel lines and other parts, but the engines “were absolutely OK.”

He adds that the corporation “obviously had done this and they were first class, no questions asked, paid everything that needed to be paid, did a phenomenal job. It was good to see they know how to step up and make it right. Everyone makes mistakes but it’s how you make it right that counts.”

The 2013 Mercedes ML-350 of Ashland retiree Linette Sophie was fueled with gasoline and got a $13,545 repair job on the fuel system. However, she says, the check engine light later came on and she is not confident her engine will have a problem-free future. WSCO’s insurer offered to total the car for $27,000, but she says her car was “in beautiful condition” and she can’t replace it for that amount or get it insured. She said she also feels “stressed and violated” and wants to be reimbursed for her suffering and time spent on the issue.

Tate of BMW says there is no telling how many other diesel vehicles quit running and “I’m sure there’s someone out there with a broken-down diesel. If you have 190,000 miles on your pickup truck and it broke down, more than likely you’re not going to take it to a dealer. You’ll go to a private mechanic and he’s not going to do the test (to see how much gas is in the tank with diesel fuel) because the (owner) is the person least able to afford the test. So, it’s a bad situation.”

The Ashland Peeps Facebook page was the main communications platform for the problem, with many telling of damage to their cars and to diesel vehicles of friends with messages pointing to the same source.

Emily Ehrlich Inget of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival costume department asked if anyone was having issues starting cars and wrote “Both our cars stopped running this week and the batteries are fine. All tests say everything is normal. The fuel fill up is the only common thing we can think of. We definitely were at the diesel pump, but wondering if there might be an issue with this batch of fuel.”

Sophie posted Feb. 6, “the tank was filled with gas. My vehicle was filled 1/31 and is at the dealer. The fuel was tested yesterday and is gas 100%. Another vehicle was filled Sunday night and too is at the dealer … Management of Astro has been very cooperative and says they’ll pay for repairs. Fingers crossed!”

No response was received to repeated attempts to reach WSCO Petroleum Corp. for clarification on how the apparent error occurred and how many vehicles may have been affected.

An attendant at the gas station says they were told not to comment on the situation.

Kristina Edmundson of the state Consumer Protection Agency in the Oregon Department of Justice said they have received no complaints on the matter.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.