Bad Fuel

Reporter: Andrew Bourke

We all know that, but at least thought we got a fair go early in the week but it seems service stations and their oil company masters want to end that. The latest scam, pretending bowers don't work on discount days.

"They're trying to push customers to buy petrol on a night other than Tuesday when the discounts aren't offered" says Richard.

Accountant Richard Bobb grew suspicious of his local service station after noticing a large number of bowsers were out of use every Tuesday, a so called "cheap day".

So Richard tried one of these pumps and found it worked. He'd caught them red handed... not just once... twice more.

"I spoke with the counter staff and said do you realise this pump is working and the response I was given was, 'we were supposed to turn it off'" said Richard. 'When I queried why do you need to switch it off, the answer I was given was that the owner thinks there are too many cars on Tuesday night."

Richard isn't buying it. "I think the directions coming from up top, it can't be this particular station, if you drive around on a Tuesday you'll find alot of stations doing the same thing."

He wants shifty service station operators who pull this stunt prosecuted. Knowing from his own experience, its not hard to catch them out.

"I think if someone like me can pick this up, where's the ACCC? They're paid to do this. I'm just a motorist and I shouldn't be doing their job" says Richard.

"Where we have examples of misleading or deceptive conduct brought to our attention, we will pursue that vigorously." ACCC Petrol Commissioner Patrick Walker is in charge of keeping the industry honest and he believes in general they are but if service stations are caught breaking the law; "No service station should avoid providing fuel if its available at cheaper prices, they need to be truthful and failure to supply it is a serious issue and potentially in breach of the trade practises act."

It's bad enough paying a $1.70 a litre for petrol if you're actually getting petrol. What if it's water instead?

"Fuels not cheap. Four litres of water in a fuel tank... I didn't pay for water, I paid for fuel." Michael Clarke's HSV Commodore is only 12 months old. He always fills up at his local Caltex and has the records to prove it. Recently he put 60 litres in and when he drove out: "About 2 kms up the road and the car stalled, it was running rough, wouldn't idle properly and would only do 40 kms an hour."

Michael took his car to his Holden dealership. The mechanics stripped the tank and found water. We took that sample to an Intertek laboratory and found 9% water. At a $1.70 a litre, for 60 litres out of a $102 fill up, more than $10 comes from a tap.

On top, the cost to fix the car - almost a $1000.

"I rang Caltex, rang the customer service line, if you can call it that. After six phone calls they never returned mine, they said they can't determine it's Caltex's fault and that's it" said Michael.

"I contacted shell to have my repairs reimbursed and they basically said I have no claim." Tamara Groenestein is another customer who feels ripped off. As a loyal customer, Tamara expected to get what she paid for. Instead she believes she bought contaminated fuel.

"It has to have come from their service station, I don't get petrol anywhere else and I have the receipts to prove it" says Tamara.

Tamara took her almost new Mitsubishi back to dealer, shocked by what they found.

"They've had a couple of cars come in from that same service station, but nowhere near as much water as was in my car - they were shocked, I think they said it was over 4 litres of water they pulled out of my tank" said Tamara.

Her cost - almost $1200.

"I said to the girl, what do I do now and she said you'll have to sue us so thats more cost to me" adds Tamara.

While incidents such as pretending bowsers are closed on Tuesday nights and water finding its way into fuel tanks happen at the local service station may not oil company driven. Most petrol stations are owned, leased or affiliated with oil companies.

Of the almost 8000 service stations around the country, the big 4: Caltex, Mobil, BP and Shell control or exclusively supply nearly 75%.

Caltex and Shell adamant they have no case to answer when it comes to water contaminated fuel. Caltex washing it's hands of the matter by saying.

'We did tests and found no water in the tank, and as far as we're concerned, thats the end of the matter.'

Shell also tried to "hose down" the situation

"Its hard to see where there would be any value at all for any petrol marketer or fuel company putting water in their fuel" says Kevin.

"If they don't do it on purpose then how does it get into the tank?

"Well generally accidentally after a long period of rain water can get into the tanks, it can go through the dip points, through the fill points and collects on the bottom of the tank" answers Kevin.

Kevin Hughes has been in the petrol business for more than 30 years. He agrees, service stations do have a responsibility to their customers, whatever happens.

"If service stations are properly managed they will check at least weekly to see if they have water and its a simple process, they just put paste on their dipstick and drop it into the tank" says Kevin.

"They're probably just hoping I'd go away, but if they do this to everybody and everybody goes away, it's no problem to them" says Michael.

"If I didn't have those receipts I probably wouldn't have a leg to stand on, but I have my receipts and I'm gonna take em" adds Tamara.