How fuel is inspected in S.D., area states

Source: Written by Cody Winchester, Argus Leader • Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012

In South Dakota, retail fuel stations are inspected every two years for pump accuracy and ethanol content.

“By and large, what we are there for is to determine whether the pumps are dispensing accurately,” said David Pfahler, director of the state division of inspections and weights and measures. “And if not, we take them out of service.”

In the past, inspectors didn’t screen for octane, making it the only state in the region other than Montana and Nebraska that doesn’t test. But in the wake of a statewide investigation into mislabeled fuel, octane testing now will be incorporated into the inspection protocol.

With the exception of Wyoming and Montana, all of the states bordering South Dakota require regular gasoline to have a minimum octane rating of 87. State officials say they haven’t consulted with neighboring states about the proposal to allow 85-octane gasoline in South Dakota because they’re more concerned about how it will affect their own market.

Here’s a look at how fuel quality is regulated in nearby states:

• Iowa: Fuel at each retail station is inspected annually for ethanol, water content and octane. The state has its own lab but also sends samples away for analysis.

Robin Pruisner, acting bureau chief for weights and measures, said her inspectors try to stay on top of bleedover from states that have less rigorous standards.

“We do watch that,” she said. “The marketers are always watching their bottom line, and consumers need to be aware of what they’re putting in what engines.”

Inspectors have field equipment to test fuel quality at scheduled inspections, and they follow up on complaints.

• Nebraska: As in South Dakota, the western part of Nebraska falls into an “altitude derating” area as delineated by older technical manuals. But state law forbids the sale of 85-octane gasoline.

No agency has authority to enforce the law, however, according to Paul Moyer, Pfahler’s counterpart in Nebraska.

“We’re in a bit of a quandary here,” he said in a recent interview. Even if an inspector caught a station selling the lower-quality blend, “I have no authority to cite them.”

Retail stations are audited annually for pump accuracy, and inspectors have a kit to test for ethanol content. They do not test for octane levels.

But low-quality fuel has not been an issue in Nebraska, Moyer said. The state commissioned a study in the early 1990s to determine whether it ought to give teeth to the law; ultimately, it did not.

• Minnesota: Inspectors audit retail stations for octane, ethanol and biodiesel content.

“We have been using that equipment at stations along the Minnesota-South Dakota border to ensure that 85-octane gasoline is not getting into the state,” Matt Swenson, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Commerce, wrote in an email. “If we discovered through an audit or through field testing that someone was selling 85-octane gasoline, we would remove it from sale. A pattern of selling out-of-specification product would be referred to the county attorney for prosecution.”

• North Dakota: Four inspectors in the Department of Health’s underground storage tank program audit each station for octane and ethanol content on a rolling basis, depending on how much time has passed since it last was inspected, said Mark Mittelsteadt, an environmental engineer who oversees inspections in the southeastern portion of the state.

That means stations can expect an inspection about once every three years, Mittelsteadt said. The agency has a lab to test samples.

“The only problem I would foresee (with South Dakota lowering its standard) is if there’s some bulk dealers right on the South Dakota side of the border that deliver to North Dakota service stations,” he said.

• Montana: In Montana, where the minimum octane standard is 85.5, tight budgets forced the state to drop its fuel-quality testing program in 2005, weights and measures bureau chief Tim Lloyd said.

A few years ago, a proposal was floated that would have raised the minimum octane level, but it went nowhere in the Legislature, he said.

The state’s eight inspectors try to audit each station annually for volume and pump accuracy, but testing for fuel quality is done only when someone files a complaint.

Lloyd is trying to scrape together enough money for a bare-bones laboratory to analyze fuel quality samples, as mailing them out of state is prohibitively expensive. The cost to send 200 octane samples to the lab in Washington that once did Montana’s analysis: $56,000.

• Wyoming: The minimum octane rating in Wyoming is 85. Inspectors there check retail stations for pump accuracy and volume about once every three years

They also have a mobile screening lab and a random sampling program to test for octane content.