Cause of Fall 2019 fuel mix-up remains unknown

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 26, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

Quarles Petroleum now county’s fuel vendor through state contract

PRINCE GEORGE – The cause of a fuel mix-up that saw a pair of county diesel storage tanks contaminated with gasoline, resulting in a number of emergency apparatus needing to have their fuel extracted and the remainder of the fleet to be inspected, leaving many units out of service for part of the day last September remains unknown and may never be revealed.

Last week, The Prince George Journal asked Fire and EMS director Brad Owens for an update on their investigation in the Sept. 9, 2019 incident that saw gasoline introduced into two diesel fuel tanks, but he declined to comment and directed any inquiries to the county attorney’s office, led by Dan Whitten.

On that Monday in early September of last year, officials were alerted in the late morning hours of issues with two medic units that required them to be taken offline for mechanical reasons. Once on-site at the county garage, their fleet management staff found “the diesel fuel in both units had been contaminated with gasoline.”

“It was later determined that multiple fire and EMS units were experiencing similar problems and, as the notifications were made, it was unclear how many units were affected by the situation,” Owens shared during the following week’s board of supervisors meeting. “Therefore, we declared a local emergency, opened our emergency operations center, activated county staff, and began further investigating the severity of the issue.”

With the scale of the contamination unknown at that point, all of the county’s fire and EMS units were taken out of service to allow fleet management staff the time needed to fully assess the fuel inside the apparatuses. With the entirety of the county’s units being inspected before resuming service, Prince George officials alerted their neighboring communities about the incident in case the county would need to make a mutual aid request.

Throughout the morning, county garage staff worked to clear units, with the first station being brought completely back online roughly 30 minutes later.

“When that station went online, we changed our dispatching priority so they would be alerted on every call for service, in addition to mutual aid units that were brought in, if needed,” Owens explained after the incident. “As the other stations were brought back online, the same process took place,” with all stations back under normal operations by 5 p.m. that day.

In total, “three engines, one ladder truck, and three medic units” were affected by the contaminated fuel and, even though the call was put out to their neighbors, no requests for mutual aid were made during the incident.

At that time, Owens said their investigation had narrowed down the origin of the contamination to two specific fuel tanks, one at Station 6 on South Crater Road and Station 8 along Prince George Drive, saying they worked with their vendor James River Solutions to get those tanks cleaned and refueled. Those efforts did not affect other stations ask, according to Owens, plans were in place to ensure those stations can refuel elsewhere.

Days after the incident, Owens said they were working to determine how gasoline got into the diesel tanks and, eventually, some of the county’s key apparatuses.

“It is all under investigation right now so we are not ruling anything out or speculating or anything,” he said in September. “We want to make sure we have results, then we can move forward with that and conduct an investigation depending on which route we need to go.”

This month, questions about the investigation directed to Owens were forwarded to County Attorney Whitten, who said there is no new information or details to share in regards to the mix-up, adding any information regarding the cause of the 2019 incident would likely come from James River Solutions, the county’s fuel vendor at the time.

The Prince George Journal reached out to James River Solutions for comment and an explanation as to what caused September’s mix-up but a response was not provided by the time this article was published.

In 2016, supervisors voted to enter into a new fuel agreement, opting to go through the state’s contract vendor at the time, which was James River Solutions. At that time, the board voted to enter into a contract with the company using the City of Manassas’ base term, which was one year, with the option to renew up to four times for an additional year.

Last September, weeks after the fuel issue, the county was presented with different options to consider in regards to gasoline and diesel fuel vendors as the cooperative contract renewal with James River Solutions and the City of Manassas was set to expire at the end of the following month.

Among the options were a renewal of the Manassas contract, a cooperative contract with Hanover County or sole contract with Quarles Petroleum, the current state fuel contract holder, or a cooperative contract with either Chesterfield or Henrico counties with PAPCO.

According to county documents, Quarles’ rates provided the most savings when compared to James River Solutions and PAPCO.

Supervisors unanimously voted to enter into a contract with the state’s contracted vendor Quarles, citing staff’s recommendation, who noted they did not “believe better pricing could be obtained by preparing an individual local bid, as the state has larger bargaining power,” adding, “county participation in state contracts potentially improves/reduces prices paid with larger statewide bargaining power.”

When asked, General Services Director Purvis said the county’s experience with Quarles has been “excellent.”

The now-signed contract was made effective Nov. 1 of last year, with “possible renewals on the state renewal schedule,” which county documents show up to “six additional annual renewals available.”

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