Murphy strikes Chevron

October 1, 1994

If the contamination of thousands of gallons of avgas at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, late last spring weren't so serious, it might be funny — a comedy of happenstance. Indeed, future editions of Webster's could define Murphy's Law as: Chevron fuel contamination, 1994.

The avgas tainted with jet fuel was shipped to at least six airports in the San Francisco region between mid-May and mid-June. Pumping of the fuel into aircraft continued for several weeks before the mistake was discovered.

Undoubtedly, the owners of the 1,800 aircraft affected (some say that equates to more than 2,000 engines), see little humor in having their aircraft grounded for a few weeks to even months while new or overhauled engines are installed. Fortunately, at this writing, no accidents or deaths have been officially attributed to the incident. At least a couple of attorneys, though, aren't afraid to speculate that some recent serious — and even fatal — accidents may have been caused by the contamination.

Murphy first struck on May 16 when some 3,000 sensors went awry at Chevron's sprawling Richmond refinery complex just north of Oakland. According to a source in the company, technicians in a control center ignored the flashing lights and screaming alarms as they tried to track down a faulty computer that was causing the problem. But not all the alarms were false. A later review of computer records would show that among the chaos, the system did indeed note that a faulty valve for two hours leaked jet fuel into a line transferring avgas from a marine tank to a truck tank. Had the computers not gone nuts that day, the technicians could have easily noted and then fixed the leak before it became a problem.

The fact that the fuel was being transferred from one tank to another itself is unusual. The Richmond facility stores avgas in three tanks. One is for loading of ships and two for trucks. One of the truck tanks was out of service for routine cleaning. The other truck tank can usually handle the demand for avgas, but a spike in usage caused a need for more fuel. Blending and checking a new batch of avgas is a time- consuming process, so rather than wait for the new lot and possibly run out of fuel, company officials decided to move some already blended and inspected fuel from the marine tank to the nearly empty truck tank that was still in service. Such a transfer is uncommon, but barely out of the ordinary, according to our source. Murphy, though, still had his trump card to play.

An unusual set of circumstances elsewhere in the refinery meant that a tank normally used for storing Jet A was needed for another purpose, so that fuel was being pumped to another storage site. It was a valve at the intersection of the two sets of lines that allowed the jet fuel to leak into the avgas on its way to the truck tank.

Ironically, Chevron's own competitive pricing policy may have actually contributed to the number of aircraft affected, believes David A. Walker, a pilot and AOPA member who keeps his Mooney at Metropolitan Oakland International. For years, Oakland has had some of the highest fuel prices in the area, according to Walker. To avoid the steep prices, aircraft owners often tankered fuel in from other airports. But one of the FBOs on the field recently installed a Chevron self-fueling system and drastically reduced prices, causing many pilots who formerly shopped elsewhere to fill up at Oakland. As Murphy would have it, Oakland was one of the six airports in the region to receive the bad fuel. The others are: Buchanan Field in Concord, Petaluma Municipal, Sacramento Executive, Sacramento Metropolitan, and Watsonville Municipal.

Murphy even caught up with Walker. His Mooney is one of dozens of aircraft now sitting at Oakland and the other airports awaiting engine changes. Chevron is offering those with damaged Continental or Lycoming engines either a factory rebuilt engine or a field overhaul to new specifications. Walker lives just two miles from the airport and right under the extended centerline of one of the runways. "It's been awfully quiet around here these last few weeks," he remarks. "I figure it will be the end of November before I fly again."

Like many affected aircraft owners we've heard from, Walker is pleased with the way he's been treated by Chevron. He admits, though, to being furious when he first found out that he had unknowingly flown his airplane several times on contaminated fuel.

Shortly after taking on the tainted fuel at Oakland, he flew to Arizona with his wife as a passenger. The couple refueled in Bakersfield enroute back to Oakland. A few days later they used that same lot of fuel to get to and from Monterey.

The couple then bought more tainted fuel at Oakland and headed eastward, overflew the Rocky Mountains, and went to Kansas. As they started back, he noticed the airplane became more and more difficult to start. Once running, the exhaust gas temperatures seemed to fluctuate more than usual.

Returning home, he discovered two pieces of certified mail waiting for him. He opened the letters from Chevron while still at the post office. "I almost became physically ill as I read the letters and thought about the kind of weather we had just flown in and the terrain we'd crossed."

Waiting at home on his telephone answering machine were three messages from Chevron advising him that records indicated he may have received tainted fuel and not to fly again until the engine was inspected.

Within six days of contacting the claims adjuster, Walker had a Chevron certificate in his hand for a factory remanufactured engine from Lycoming at no charge. When he and I spoke in early September, his engine had been shipped to Lycoming.

Though frustrated by the incident, Walker was impressed by Chevron's response. He even called Chevron's credit card division and asked to be credited for the $110 worth of contaminated fuel he had purchased and for the 40 gallons of fuel in the airplane when he returned from Kansas. The company complied.

"There was no arguing, no denial, no confrontation. Chevron admitted their mistake and offered me the new engine. I did not have to demand one. No offer of an overhaul, just 'pick your shop, the certificate is on its way.' Now, I realize the potential liability Chevron faced and the costs that could have resulted in lawsuits — I'm no fool. It's just nice to see somebody do what's right.... I'll be a loyal Chevron customer."

Not all involved are as pleased with Chevron's response. Three people have filed class action lawsuits on behalf of those whose aircraft were damaged. According to Bruce Blakely, an attorney, aircraft owner, and AOPA member, Chevron was not as cooperative until it was encouraged by a judge in the Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco. Blakely is a plaintiff in one of the suits and the judge has now combined all three suits into one.

Like Walker, Blakely is a victim of the contamination. His Cessna Cardinal, based at Petaluma, also was flown on the contaminated fuel.

Blakely says the immediate goal of his lawsuit is to make sure that everyone affected by the incident gets notified. He believes additional airports may have received the bad fuel and that the fuel may have been in circulation longer than the oil company has admitted. Blakely said his investigators are trying to determine if any crashes, engine failures, or fatalities may be linked to the tainted avgas.

Finally, Blakely says he wants to make sure that those with damaged engines receive fair compensation, not just for the engines, but also for down time, rentals, and lost income.

According to a Chevron official, the company is paying for the "cost of doing business," including the use of rental airplanes by flight schools and for loss revenue. Blakely, though, had not received the information in his case.

Meanwhile, Continental and Lycoming have both put on extra shifts to handle the increased work load. Though the fuel debacle seems to have been confined to the San Francisco region, the ripple effect is widespread. Owners not affected by the fuel contamination but in need of parts and engines may find their orders in line behind those scores of California-bound engines.

Anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit and some training aircraft might also head west to find a fortune. San Francisco area flight schools with entire fleets sitting on their tails might be interested in some creative lease deals.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.