Lapsed inspections could cause pain at the pump

Gas pumps across the state haven't been inspected regularly. (Source: WAFF)
Gas pumps across the state haven't been inspected regularly. (Source: WAFF)

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Drivers will be hitting the road for the holiday weekend and stopping to gas up.

Have you ever questioned whether you're driving off with the gas you paid for?

We've learned thousands of pumps across the Tennessee Valley have not been inspected in years.

We wanted to know why, what's being done about it, and if it's causing you to get cheated at the pump.

We spotted inspection stickers on dozens of pumps, some that have not been inspected by the state in four years.

They're supposed to be inspected once a year, but state officials admit that's not happening.

There are approximately 90,000 pumps throughout the state - and only six state inspectors to check them.

Here's why: Major budget cuts in 2011 forced massive layoffs in the Department of Agriculture & Industries, taking a staff of 31 down to just 12. Of those, only half are actual inspectors. T

hose same six inspectors are responsible for double-checking taxi meters, grocery scales, livestock scales and more.

The Department's motto is "Serving Alabama's Farmers and Consumers Every Day..." But can they really under these circumstances?

We made the trip Montgomery to get some answers.

When it comes to budget cuts hurting Alabama drivers, it has.

"If there is no one out there checking the pumps, you don't know what they are doing," said Weights & Measures Director Stacy Boshell. "Pumps are man-made devices and without someone out there monitoring that, it could go off one way or the other. A majority of pumps are not being tested unless there is a complaint."

If there's a problem with a pump, it's likely going undetected until you, the consumer, makes a call.

Over a course of a year, enough complaints came pouring in from Huntsville drivers.

In May, the department dispatched four inspectors who spent a week testing a sample of pumps out of the thousands on the street.

Out of 844 pumps tested, 701 were approved, considered in good working order. But 143 failed inspection.

That's about a 17 percent failure rate, which is on par with the state averages. We

asked for a copy of what stations failed in Huntsville, and were denied.

"Our public records laws don't allow that," said Boshell.

However, by law we are able to get our hands on inspections from specific stations - if we put that request in writing.

We picked 20 pumps, some we've heard complaints about from viewers, and since Huntsville just had inspections, we listed those stations the most.

Suprisingly, none of the 20 randomly selected gas stations we submitted have been inspected in at least one year.

Inspectors are now in the process of checking those pumps.

Officials said they hear three common complaints. The first - price jumping, where you barely touch the nozzle and it jumps from zero to 5, 10, 20 cents before you realize it. The second common complaint is water in the lines, which can definitely damage an engine. Lastly, short measure, where you're shorted the gallons you paid for.

A pump can still pass inspection even if it is giving you less gas.

Inspectors allow for a margin of error.

Six cubic inches under or over the correct gallon mark can still pass an inspection. That's less than a thimble full of gas but it is allowed.

Once a problem is found, pumps are immediately taken out of service, the station owner is cited and they have 10 - 30 days to have it corrected. For some, the loss in business is enough to fix the problem.

For others, who Boshell likes to call "bad actors," the loss in customers will not deter them - and guess what, they've been able to do it and cheat drivers without getting caught solely because of the lack of manpower.

"It's the consumer's responsibility in this state to notify us of things like that, so we can act on it," said Boshell.

However, the other side to that argument is that as a consumer who pays their taxes, they expect the department to do their duty, and the lack of personnel is a problem they need to fix.

The state said they finally have a way to hold gas station owners more accountable with a new policy beginning October.

Legislation passed last year will now force owners to hire state approved, registered service agents to come in and inspect their pumps once a year, and report their findings to the state.

Citations also now come with monetary fines.

"No matter if it's good or bad, we'll know within a week," said Boshell.

In case you are wondering about where your gas tax money goes and why it's not funding more inspectors on the road, the department only gets a small portion of those funds.

It also goes towards maintaining roads and bridges, the Environmental Protection Agency, and emergency management.

As for our request for pump inspection results, we were promised we would have them by next week.

We will continue to follow up every day until we get them and update you on what pumps passed or failed and why.

If you come across a problem at the pump call 1-800-642-7761 or (334) 240-7133, and tell them what you experienced.

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