Futureatlas/ FlickrA new kind of gas nozzle has been implicated in the dousing of more than a dozen customers, one of whom was hospitalized.
California gas station owners are fuming about new emission-trapping pump nozzles required by the state’s pollution regulator, the Air Resources Board, after more than a dozen customers were sprayed with gasoline.
The state fire marshal is so concerned about the malfunctioning devices that it has ordered the removal of all the latches on the nozzles – despite a state law requiring them.
And that order, which was issued in August, has left service stations in an awkward, possibly dangerous and financially unpalatable situation.
No one wants to take responsibility for fixing 35,000 nozzles at thousands of stations across California. Replacing all the nozzles would cost about $10.5 million.
The problem, which impacts roughly one-third of the state's gas stations that have converted to the newer nozzles, centers around a malfunctioning latch made by Vapor Systems Technologies in Springboro, Ohio.
More than a dozen incidents were reported. One person was hospitalized after getting sprayed.
Service station owners have until October 15 to remove the latches, but they are wary and angry about the removal order.
They say nozzles without the latches are potentially more dangerous than ones without them, because customers will use other devices – including bubble gum, wallets or cigarette lighters – to keep the nozzles open.
The fire marshal "has solved one problem and created a bunch of others," said Tom Robinson, president of the Robinson Oil Co., which owns and operates more than 30 Rotten Robbie service stations in the Bay Area.
But because there are no alternative nozzles on the market to replace the malfunctioning ones, service station owners are left with two choices: They can allow Vapor Systems Technologies technicians to remove the latches and deal with potentially dangerous customer behavior. Or they can disobey the fire marshal and face the consequences, including having their pumps shut down by the local fire department or dealing with liability issues if someone gets sprayed by a malfunctioning nozzle.
All California service stations were required by the Air Resources Board to have next-generation nozzles installed on gasoline pumps by April 2009. These new devices are designed to capture emissions escaping from the fuel tank before they enter the atmosphere, where the vapors create ozone and pollution. To date, about one-third of the state’s gas stations have made the switch.
The nozzle program is the result of the Enhanced Vapor Recovery regulations that were announced in 2000. At the time, several thousand service stations had no options – there simply wasn’t a nozzle on the market equipped with a "balance system" for vapor recovery.
In December 2008, four months before the deadline, Vapor Systems Technologies released a vapor-trapping nozzle certified by the Air Resources Board and the state fire marshal. At about $300 each, the nozzles were installed at 3,000 service stations in use across the state – a total of about 35,000 nozzles.
Yet, it wasn’t long before trouble started happening.
In the spring of 2010, service stations began reporting incidents of customers getting doused with gasoline by Vapor Systems Technologies nozzles.
“In every single one of these cases, it all had to do with the functioning and mechanics with the hold-open latch,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the state fire marshal.
Officials from Vapor Systems Technologies said there is nothing inherently wrong with the nozzle.
Todd Sorrell, spokesman for the company, said the majority of malfunctioning nozzles had surpassed their one-year warranty when the incidents occurred.
Indeed, “all gasoline nozzles, or any mechanical device for that matter, will eventually fail for some reason,” wrote Glenn K. Walker, Vapor Systems president, in a letter dated June 21, 2010, to California service stations.
The company says the nozzles were damaged by wear and tear. According to the company, every month there are 2,000 drive-offs or breakaways involving its nozzles at California gas stations. A drive-off is when a customer forgets the nozzle in the gas tank and begins to drive away from the pump.
Vapor Systems is working on a new replacement nozzle they hope will be on the market soon.
It's unclear who will ultimately foot the multimillion dollar bill for the new nozzles.
“Unfortunately, this is all likely headed toward the courts,” said Jay McKeeman, spokesman for the California Independent Oil Marketers Association, a trade association.