A very expensive fill-up: $500

Julia Cart was with her 2-year-old granddaughter, Josephine Keefe-Lemaher, when her car had to be towed after it died in West Ashley. The diagnosis was bad gasoline, and the company that owns the station where Cart bought the gas plans to reimburse her fo

Fuel prices are hard enough on the wallet these days without having to fork over hundreds of dollars more to clean contaminated gas out of a car's tank and engine.

That's what Charleston fine arts photographer Julia Cart said happened to her recently after she filled her Honda Element at a Kangaroo Express station at Rutledge Avenue and Calhoun Street.

A $40 tank of BP-brand gas wound up costing $460 in repairs, she said.

An official with the company that owns the station, Sanford, N.C.-based The Pantry Inc., said Tuesday that the station's own testing showed that its tanks were not contaminated. Still, the company intends to reimburse Cart for all her expenses.

On July 5, Cart was headed toward Earth Fare in West Ashley with her 2-year-old granddaughter when she pulled into the Kangaroo. She topped off with about 10 gallons in her 12-gallon tank.

She said her Honda began sputtering after she pulled out and headed toward the Ashley River Bridge. "It kept dying on me through the stop lights," she said. "I was scared."

Her vehicle conked out as she pulled into Earth Fare. She had to have it towed to Hendrick Honda on Savannah Highway.

The mechanic's diagnosis was water in the gas. Cart paid $460 in parts and labor to get the bad fuel cleaned out.

When she returned to the gas station to find out how to make a claim, "they seemed defensive and were reluctant to give me any information. I was pretty frustrated."

She left with a 1-800 number for the station's corporate office in North Carolina. But she could never connect with a human being on the other end. That's when Cart called The Post and Courier Watchdog.

The newspaper contacted Kangaroo's corporate office to inquire about Cart's case. Within minutes, a company official returned Cart's calls and asked her to fax over her gas receipt and car repair bill.

Paul Moody, a division vice president with The Pantry Inc., said the company uses electronic monitoring and other tests to check its tanks for water and found "no record of any contamination."

Moody said that if the station had dispensed water in its gas, he would expect more claims from other customers, but there have been no others.

The company did receive a few claims recently after its Kangaroo Express station at 2220 Middle St. on Sullivan's Island had a breech in an underground line that allowed water to contaminate some of its gasoline, Moody said.

After her experience, Cart lodged a complaint with the state Department of Agriculture, which certifies gas pumps and monitors fuel quality.

Becky Walton, the department's director of public information, said the agency sent an investigator to the station Friday to take a sample of the gas. The sample is being analyzed and the results will be sent to Cart, she said.

Water can get into gas either at the vehicle's tank or in the station's underground storage.

Walton said water can form inside vehicle gas tanks when condensation settles in the bottom of the tank. She recommends keeping the tank near full so that any settled water or sediment doesn't get sucked into the engine.

Gas stations and state inspectors routinely check for water in underground storage tanks, but water can get into gas there too, either by condensation or seepage, said Darrell Hixson, service manager at Hendrick Honda, where Cart had her car repaired.

The dealership's service garage sees about one case of contaminated fuel a month, he said.

"Most of the time it can come from rainwater that overcomes the seal on the storage tank," Hixson said. "Also, in the high humidity like we have in Charleston, a storage tank that's low and has air in it can form condensation that becomes water."

Paul Charles, a local real estate agent, said he recently bought some bad gas at a different area gas station. A state inspection found water and sediment had gotten into his Lexus' gas tank from the station. He had to pay about $500 to get his car fixed, but the station's owner has been responsive, he said.

Walton said state testing this month confirmed the presence of water in the gasoline at the Kangaroo Express at 3586 Savannah Highway, where Charles got his gas. The station's manager was not available for comment Wednesday, but Walton said the station had since corrected the problem.

Walton said she's not aware of any uptick in water-related gas complaints, but the state is receiving more complaints in general from motorists questioning the accuracy of pumps. People are just more attuned to such issues because of high gas prices, she said. "They want to get their money's worth."

Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said it's possible that some gas stations are filling their storage tanks less frequently because of high prices, which would increase the likelihood of contaminants getting into their customers' tanks.

Lenard said most gas stations already operate on such slim profit margins that running low storage tanks is risky business. "You never want to run out of gas because nobody's going to go inside and buy coffee."