By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: March 17, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.
Sept. 2019 fuel mix-up cost county $13k, local emergency declared
PRINCE GEORGE – Just over six months after a pair of the county’s diesel fuel storage tanks were contaminated with gasoline, Prince George’s former fuel provider has remained silent following several requests for reimbursement of costs related to the county’s response to September’s fuel mixup, which saw a local emergency declared as stations and units were taken offline for fuel extraction and inspection.
According to information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Prince George County has requested James River Solutions pay the county over $13,000 in connection with the county’s efforts to address the Sept. 9, 2019 fuel mix-up that affected the county’ fire and EMS department.
Even with at least two written correspondences sent to JRS, the county, as confirmed by Deputy County Administrator of Finance Betsy Drewry and County Attorney Daniel Whitten, has yet to hear back from the company.
Six months ago, Sept. 9, 2019 began with reports of two of the county’s medic units being taken out of service for mechanical reasons.
Once the pair of EMS units were brought to the county’s garage, fleet management staff discovered “the diesel fuel in both units had been contaminated with gasoline,” Prince George Fire and EMS Director Brad Owens detailed during a report to local supervisors shortly after the incident.
“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. “Therefore, we declared a local emergency, opened our emergency operations center, activated county staff, and began further investigating the severity of the issue.”
Not knowing the scope of the fuel contamination and how many apparatuses could be affected, all of the county’s fire and EMS units were taken offline to have their fuel inspected. Within the county’s emergency operations center, which activates during a local emergency, Owens and department leaders worked to notify neighboring communities of the situation and, should any calls for service come in during that time, mutual aid would be requested.
Over the course of several hours, units whose fuel were not contaminated were returned to service, with the first station resuming operations roughly a half-hour after the first mechanical issues in the county’s fire and EMS fleet were reported.
“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 in September 2019. “As the other stations were brought back online, the same process took place.”
Even though all stations, according to Owens, resumed operations by 5 p.m. that same day, the FOIA request showed fleet management staff worked late into the evening and again early the next morning to get all units ready to serve their communities once again.
According to county documents, “A total of 37.5 man hours were spent identifying and correcting the fuel issues.”
Three fire engines, three medic units, and a ladder truck were affected by the fuel contamination, the source of which having later been narrowed down to two fuel storage tanks at Station 6, the Carson substation along South Crater Road, and Station 8 in Disputanta.
At that time and since, none of the affected units were reported to have any mechanical issues due to the September 2019 fuel contamination, with local leaders praising the quick response of its fleet management team at the county garage for their efforts, as they identified the issue, inspected dozens of units, and returned unaffected apparatuses to service, while quickly extracting and refueling other pieces of county public safety equipment.
Even though the call was sent out to many of the county’s neighbors to be prepared for possible requests for mutual aid support in the county during the local emergency, Owens said there were no calls for service during the timeframe units and stations were offline.
Days after the incident, the fire and EMS director confirmed his department and the county were investigating how gasoline was introduced into two of the county’s diesel fuel storage tanks.
In January, The Prince George Journal contacted Owens in an effort to learn what may have been gleaned from the county’s investigation into the September 2019 fuel contamination but, he deferred any requests for comment on the matter to County Attorney Daniel Whitten.
When approached, the county’s legal representative said they had nothing new to report and that any information regarding a possible cause would come from JRS, the vendor at the time.
Calls and messages to JRS last week and in January seeking the company’s comment on the incident were not returned.
Through a FOIA request, it was revealed that the county, nearly a month after the contamination, sent a letter to JRS seeking $13,214.28 in reimbursement for costs incurred by Prince George due to the September 2019 fuel issue.
A supporting document showed a majority of that total, $8,864.75, was spent with Oakley Industrial Services to cover the drainage and refilling of apparatus and vehicles on September 9 and 10, 2019, along with associated labor, equipment, and fuel costs.
Another $4,114 was paid to Bay Environmental, Inc., who provided expedited fuel sampling services as all of the county’s fire and EMS units were pulled from service to be tested to ensure their fuel had not been affected by the contamination.
The remainder was rounded out with $235.53 in purchase card charges at three area gas stations to provide fuel for five units that had been drained.
According to the county, no response was received from James River Solutions from their Oct. 7 , 2019 reimbursement request letter.
In early November, a communication from Deputy County Administrator Drewry to Director Owens revealed the county had opted to “pull and not pay any James River [Solutions] invoices for deliveries through October 31, 2019,” explaining that Prince George County has “exerted [their] right under the contract terms to withhold payments until they respond” to the county’s reimbursement letter.
At that time, documents show County Attorney Whitten found a clause in their contract with JRS that allows the county to “withhold payment to them if damages have been incurred.”
A subsequent letter to JRS dated Nov. 26, 2019 reiterated the county’s desire to seek reimbursement from the company for Prince George’s response to the fuel contamination, stating, once JRS provides the requested payment for “the unnecessary cost incurred,” the county would then pay all outstanding invoices, which total $53,786.40.
At the time of The Prince George Journal’s FOIA request in January, Drewry noted the county sent its follow-up letter to James River Solutions via certified mail with a return receipt, which confirmed JRS had received the correspondence.
When asked last week, Drewry said the county has still yet to hear from James River Solutions on the reimbursement request dating back to Prince George’s first letter to the company in October.
The county and JRS were just over a month away from the end of their contract renewal period when the September 2019 fuel contamination incident occurred. According to documents from the day after the fuel mix-up, Deputy County Administrator Drewry shared information on the county’s contract with the company, who provided Prince George with gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and dyed diesel.
Prince George’s renewal with JRS, which was part of a cooperative contract with the City of Manassas, was set to expire on Oct. 31, 2019, with an option to renew for one more year. If the county wasn’t interested in re-upping their contract with JRS, Drewry advised the simplest path for the county would be to go with the state-contracted vendor in the region, Quarles.
She noted, even as the county was still investigating the cause of the fuel mix-up, leaders still needed to decide whether or not they planned to renew with JRS as, if the county didn’t, time would be needed to plan the transition between providers.
In late September, supervisors would unanimously agree to partner with Quarles through the state’s contract, with the company offering the most competitive rates when compared to a renewal with JRS, or a cooperative contract with either Chesterfield or Hanover Counties with fuel provider PAPCO.
Five months without a response from JRS on the county’s request, County Attorney Whitten said they will continue to try and make contact with the company on the matter.
“Calling them will be the next step because we sent the letters out and we didn’t receive a response,” he said. “So I am going to give them a call and see if we can set up a meeting to discuss the issues.”
As for a cause, it remains unknown how gasoline ended up inside two county diesel fuel tanks.
Copyright 2020 by Womack Publishing
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