Harold Sjogren was tooling down Westheimer in his Volkswagen camper three months ago when he noticed his gas gauge hovering near empty. In what he thought was a stroke of good fortune, Sjogren happened by the Westheimer Super-Mart, which was offering Conoco regular unleaded for a bargain-basement 99 cents a gallon. He filled 'er up.
That tank of gas turned out to be the most expensive Sjogren ever bought.
One of those obsessive car owners who babies his wheels, Sjogren washed his 1990 camper every week and religiously hauled it into the shop for routine maintenance. Since he'd bought the vehicle more than a year ago, he'd had only an air conditioning malfunction to contend with. But soon after the gas purchase, the engine started hesitating. And as he headed for a lunch appointment a couple of days later, the car conked. "It just died on me," he says.
At Herr Schmidt's, his repair shop of choice, owner/ mechanic Sonny Bassett found the camper's spark plugs covered with a white powder. "He asked me if I'd been burning cocaine in my engine," says Sjogren.
Mystified as to the cause, Bassett changed out various parts and restored the engine's former purr, but the symptoms soon reappeared. Then Sjogren heard news accounts of other vehicles with similar problems, which were traced to contaminated gas sold throughout the Houston area. Conoco soon acknowledged that 45 of the company's 154 Houston-area franchises had been selling the tainted product, and offered to pay for any damages its gas had caused.
A call to Conoco brought a promise to reimburse Sjogren for Herr Schmidt's $311.79 tab and rent him a car for two weeks, plus absorb any additional repairs that the gas, which was still in his tank, might have caused. As Herr Schmidt had a backlog of work, he took the VW to the Mahan Volkswagen dealership on Kirby. Mahan cleaned out the gas tank, tested the compression and otherwise tinkered to the tune of $400.20, for which Conoco cut a check.
When Sjogren went to pick up the camper, however, he balked: to validate the check, he had to sign a waiver on the back that released Conoco from future liability for "damages of any and every loss now known or that may hereafter develop" as a result of the bad gas. Though someone at Conoco reassured him by phone that the release didn't preclude him from making another claim later, he decided to pay for the repairs himself.
Back went the VW to Herr Schmidt's Sonny Bassett, who repeated the compression test. The numbers, which confirmed Mahan's, showed two of the four cylinders to be unacceptably low. Bassett says that while some of the wear and tear may have preceded the ill-fated fill-up, he concluded that the powder was holding the valves away from their seats and was therefore responsible for "starting the ball rolling" on the compression drop. Sjogren's camper would need a valve job. The estimated cost was more than $1,200. Bassett faxed a note to Conoco requesting authority to begin the work.
Now it was Conoco's turn to stall. After receiving the fax, Carol Benoit in the marketing department called Bassett and argued at length that the bad gas couldn't have caused the damage and said that Conoco wouldn't pay for the repairs. Bassett tried to walk her through his technical analysis, but, he says, "She didn't want to listen to anything I had to say."
After going around in circles for awhile, according to Bassett, Benoit tried to finish the discussion by saying the point was moot, anyway. Apparently unaware of Sjogren's previous actions, she told the mechanic that since the company had the owner's signed release, Conoco no longer had responsibility in the case.
Benoit's boss, Pam Harper, who also had several discussions with Sjogren about his troubles, did not return phone calls from the Press. But Conoco spokeswoman Teresa Wong says that the company would be willing to pay for any damage demonstrably caused by its gas, "regardless of the release forms." Wong contends that the company's expert mechanics have concluded that the need for a valve job had nothing to do with the tainted gas. "The contamination does not damage pistons, cylinders or valves," she says.
As for the other work on Sjogren's camper, Wong says Conoco has made every effort to pay off, as the company has done with other claimants, but was rebuffed. "We have paid 600-plus claims," she says. "Those customers are all satisfied."
Wong says that Conoco is taking a beating over the bad gas episode because it came forward early and accepted responsibility. Though complaints also were lodged against Shell, Exxon, Diamond Shamrock, Chevron, Texaco and others, those companies claimed their gas was perfectly clean. So everyone with engine trouble, including a number whose problems were clearly unrelated to the foul fuel, hit Conoco up. "All kinds of crazies came out of the woodwork," says Wong.
In fact, she says, only about five cases, including Harold Sjogren's, are still in dispute.
That's not what the attorney general's Houston office of consumer protection is saying, however. Since the bad gas hit the pumps, consumers have lodged 53 complaints against Conoco through a telephone hot line, according to spokesman Ward Tisdale. Of those cases, the A.G.'s office successfully mediated ten. Conoco rejected 15 claims, and 28 others are still pending. The specifics of those cases were not immediately available.
One fact does seem to back up Wong's assertion that the tainted gas is "an industry problem, not a Conoco problem": the attorney general has logged an additional 155 complaints against other companies, though Tisdale could not say if any other companies had paid off disgruntled customers. Wong insists that others have indeed paid claims, but said it would be "inappropriate" to identify them.
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Though the cause of the problem was apparently a rogue silicon compound that was blended into the gas, tracing the source is more difficult. Like many gasoline dealers, Conoco buys its finished product from several suppliers, which use ingredients from various refiners. If the company knows which source provided the bad gas, no one's telling. But Conoco claims to have taken new precautions to prevent a recurrence in the future.
After the Press inquired about Sjogren's plight, the company offered to send an "independent master mechanic" to check his car and determine once and for all the roots of his engine problems. Sjogren, who to date has had to shell out $2,874 to get his VW running right, has not yet decided whether to ask the attorney general's office to mediate his dispute, take Conoco to small claims court or pursue some other avenue for relief.
Sjogren doesn't think he'll return to Conoco's pumps any time soon, despite a recent friendly letter asking him to verify his purchase of the bad gas and let bygones be bygones. "Dear Valued Customer," the letter began, "Thank you for notifying us regarding the recent damage which occurred to your vehicle after you purchased Conoco gasoline in the Houston area. We are sorry for any inconvenience you may have experienced. We hope that your complaint was handled professionally and to your satisfaction."
Enclosed was a coupon -- for $10 worth of gas.