Watered Petrol

Reporter: David Richardson

Petrol went up another 14 cents a litre overnight. But it's still cheaper than bottled water. Which makes you wonder why service stations are so relaxed about huge amounts of water getting into their underground tanks. Then causing havoc with your car's petrol engine. Today Tonight investigates a scandal the oil giants don't want to reveal.

"I remember petrol being a nice pinky brown colour and the petrol is brown. it doesn't even look like petrol," said one consumer.

"It's ridiculous. it shouldn't happen. especially when you're paying that much for fuel. you'd think they'd make sure nothing got in the fuel," said another.

If it's not bad enough paying one dollar 50 or more for petrol, how about paying that and finding it wasn't petrol at all? It was filled with water...

"It's a disgrace. you can't do that," said a petrol consumer, Chris.

"When they brought a sample back to me it looked like someone had urinated in the sample. that's how bad it was," he added.

Chris Van Van Djck's holden is less than 6 months old but it's been off the road because he copped a bad tank of petrol from a major petrol station on one of Australia's busiest highways, the M4 motorway in Sydney's west. Within minutes of topping up with Caltex octane 95 fuel here, Chris's car shuddered to a complete stop.

We tested a sample of the petrol and the result was that it was 49% water. That's right....49% water.

"How much did you pay a litre for that?" asked our reporter.

"$1.58. so what did that fuel cost you a tank? $86. 86-dollars for which 50% is out of the tap? that's right," said Chris.

A metal fitter...it cost Chris more than 500 to have his car repaired...and up to $4,000 in lost business and he's not the only one.

"That's it. that's part of the sample Honda gave me. that's the stuff that cause the car to break down. and shell have refused to accept that from me bcause it's not in a testing approved canister," said Darren Marshall, another petrol consumer.

Darren Marshall found found petrol in his tank that looked like it had a mouldy brown slick on the bottom...but also contaminated with water...

We tested his petrol and found that it was 20% water,

Darren filled his car up at this Shell service station. He used E-10, a regular unleaded blended with ethanol. His 45-thousand dollar Honda was just 4 days old...when it just died...

"And the response from Shell is we can take a one-off payment and if there's anything else wrong with the car we just have to wear the cost," said Darren.

Repairs to his car cost more than a thousand dollars. Shell refuses to admit liability.

"Has shell tried to shirt it's responsibility to you?" asked our reporter/

sot (darren/tape 2/ 16.05--/"Oh I believe that 100%. why would they come back to us with a $2,000 offering if they're not guilty.")

The big question, how did the water got into the tank in the first place?

Service stations operate on basically the same design regardless of who owns them. Large storage tanks for the various petrol blends are built underground. Petrol is then pumped through fibreglass pipes to the bowsers...

A small quantity of water always sits in those underground petrol tanks. So the pipes that pump to the bowser don't sit all the way to the bottom. Water is heavier than petrol and sits below the fuel so the pumps only take the petrol from the top of the tank but how could almost half of a tank contain water.

"49% is a huge amount. and would need some investigation as to how it got there," said Kevin Hughes.

Kevin Hughes is the former boss of the service stations association. He ran petrol stations for years.

"Quite often, particularly after heavy rains, tanks do get some water in. the water comes in from a leaking tank, or leaking pipelines, or around the fuel points where the fuel is dropped into the underground tank," said Kevin.

"Any excuse for not reimbursing the driver?" asked our reporter.

"None what so ever. they should be re-imbursed without any argument whatsoever," said Kevin.

"50% of it was water, 50% of it was fuel so from that it was pretty obvious what the problem was," said Mark.

Another Caltex, this time a Woolworths but in a different state. Same old problem.

Mark Hinson filled his 4-wheel drive with 70 litres of watered petrol....and his car died.

"The fuel sample that I actually took into the service station you could see it. You could see an orange-reddy line where the fuel itself was floating on top of the water. And the water underneath was just horrid. It was putrid," said Mark.

Mark complained but got nowhere so he staged a protest....covering his car with signs about the dodgy fuel and sitting outside the Caltex Woolworths site until he got reimbursed.

"No, they haven't admitted responsibility and as a fuel company I don't expect them to however they have covered the repair costs of the car as an act of goodwill and good faith," said Mark.

But guess what, Mark is banned from telling us how much damage was done...and what it cost to fix, gagged.

"Under the terms of the agreement with woolworths caltex I can't disclose the actual dollar value of it. what I can say is the amount of work that was done, WAS extensive," he said.

"It's a very uncommon problem. we sell about 7-billion litres of petrol a year and we have very very few cases of water being entrained with petrol," said Richard Beatty.

Richard Beatty from Caltex tried to hose down the problem. He confirmed Caltex was investigating the incidents....and would cover all repair costs.

"What happens if they have further problems down the track? Well if there were any further problems attributable to the fuel incident of course we would be prepared to have a look at those but like all claims they need to be verified," he said.

Chris Can Dick's car is running right now and he's waiting for Caltex to process his claim.

Mark Hinson in Queensland has been settled....but is still far from happy. While Darren is still at loggerheads with Shell over his dodgy fuel problem. None of them are happy with the companies involved.

"Clean up their act. Get it together. Look after their customers. They're a big corporation and as a big corporation you would think they could look after their customers a little better," said Mark.