Gas pump complaints going unchecked? The new Texas law causing a stir at the pump
Author: Erica Proffer, Joe Ellis
Published: 10:24 PM CST February 15, 2018
Updated: 10:24 PM CST February 15, 2018
DEFENDERS 4 Articles

Have you ever wondered if you’re really getting what you pay for at the gas pump?

A new law that quietly passed in the 2017 legislative session may have an impact on your next fill-up.

The KVUE Defenders found it changed the way the state’s gas pump investigators handle complaints and how often pumps get inspected.


Gas pump complaints going unchecked? The new Texas law causing a stir at the pump

Chapter 1

Angie Fitzgerald's Story

Most people may never think twice about the gas they’re putting in their car when they fill-up at the pump, unless they're drivers like Angie Fitzgerald.

“I’m wondering what is actually going into my vehicle right now,” Fitzgerald said as she pumped gas into her new Ford Explorer.

Fitzgerald questions every fill-up now because of the engine in her last car -- a Ford Expedition -- was ruined by tainted gas.

“I had purchased $80 worth of gas at a gas station around the corner from where I live,” she explained. “The next time I tried to start it, it would start, but then it kept dying.”

The mechanic told her he found a high level of ethanol, water and rusty debris and dirt in her tank. It cost more than $3,000 to fix her engine, but it never ran the same again.

Fitzgerald filed a complaint with the Texas Department of Agriculture, which regulates gas pumps.

Chapter 2

Gas Pump Inspections

Records show TDA caught problems with 957 gas stations across the state in 2017. Agency investigators found 248 stations failed to properly maintain equipment, 29 stations for misrepresenting the price charged at the pump, and 20 stations for misrepresenting the quantity of gas being dispensed at pumps.

(To see the data, click here.)

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller took a sworn oath to protect Texas consumers. But he says a new law makes it harder for him to keep that oath…and it could cost you at the gas pump.

“If we get a complaint, we can’t respond,” said Commissioner Miller.

That’s because lawmakers changed the Texas Agriculture Code in the 2017 legislative session with the passing of House Bill 2174.

Chapter 3

A New Law

The Texas Food and Fuel Association, which consists of and represents convenience store and gas station owners in Texas pushed for the bill. TFFA President Paul Hardin says the intention was to streamline the gas pump inspection process.

“You’re already requiring a third-party TDA licensed company to come by and calibrate that and make sure that the pump is all good. So, why have TDA follow around another year or so?” said Hardin.

TFFA’s pitch was to have private TDA-licensed inspectors calibrate the pumps every two years, which he says would be three times faster than TDA and would save taxpayers money.

HB 2174 bill passed through first round of committee hearings. Lobbyists and “friends” of lawmakers supported it. No one appeared to testify in opposition of the bill.

Then, the bill went to the house floor, where the bill’s author, State Rep. Drew Darby, added an amendment.

“I met with (TDA) Commissioner Miller,” Darby told fellow House members. “He asked that we clarify the complaint structure, ensuring that TDA can respond to complaints to protect consumers,” Darby continued.

It changed how Miller’s department handles consumer complaints.

“This would implement a process of notification and additional inspection if warranted, and it is acceptable to the author,” Darby said from the House floor.

Miller said he did not ask for that.

Now, because of Darby’s amendment, it takes three complaints about the same station within the same year before TDA can order an inspection for complaints regarding weights and measures. TDA can’t do the inspection. It has to be a private, TDA-licensed inspector hired by the gas station.

“You have the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Commissioner Miller.

While the changes in the law might seem straight from special interest, Hardin says the Food and Fuel Association did not have any input on Darby’s amendment and acknowledges it’s the responsibility of store owners to maintain compliance with TDA regulations.

“It’s ultimately up to the retailer/operator to be in compliance with all of those rules and regulations,” said Hardin.

But Commissioner Miller says consumers are “totally at risk", and consumer watchdog groups like Public Citizen agree.

“If citizens are calling in a complaint, they’re making the effort to make a complaint; that’s probably worth an inspection by the state,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas Director of Public Citizen. “It does seem like those citizen complaints have less of an effect than they used to. That’s a problem,” Shelly continued.

The KVUE Defenders found gas pump Inspections following complaints dropped significantly after the bill became law.

Prior to Sept.1, 2017, TDA conducted dozens of inspections from complaints every month.

Now, you can count the number of monthly complaint-based inspections on one hand.

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Complaints at the Pump

Maybe calling it the "Wild Wild West" is a bit extreme, but Agriculture Commission Sid Miller does highlight a problem. Your complaints may not be heard. We're airing a story about gas pump violations. Now, for certain complaints, a station gets three-strikes before they are required to hire an inspector to address the problem. This graphic shows how inspections dropped after a new law was passed. KVUE

Posted by Erica Proffer on Thursday, February 15, 2018

The KVUE Defenders reached out to Representative Drew Darby’s office to find out how the amendment was passed without much notice.

Staffers said Darby asked legislative council to draft the amendment because Miller asked for a complaint process.

Once received, Darby read the amendment on the House floor.

The next reading of the bill came a day later. Then, the bill went to the Senate.

No one spoke on record against the amendment.

While TDA is not allowed by law to speak for or against a bill, TDA was not asked how the amendment would impact consumers.

Hardin says Food and Fuel Association had no knowledge of the amendment until it was read on the House floor. He plans to seek clarification on the complaint process next legislative session.

“It was very frustrating,” said Angie Fitzgerald. “I think now it will be worse.”

Fitzgerald has kept her receipts from every fill-up ever since, doing what she can to protect herself.

Luckily for consumers like Fitzgerald, TDA confirms, if fuel quality is in question, TDA can still investigate those complaints immediately.

Chapter 4

What's Next

You can weigh in by contacting your Texas Representative. Tap here to find who represents you.

If you have a story tip for the KVUE Defenders to investigate, send an email to defenders@kvue.com or call 512-533-2231.

Follow Erica Proffer on Twitter @ericaproffer, Facebook @ericaprofferjournalist, and Instagram @ericaproffer.

Follow Joe Ellis on Twitter @JoeEllisATX.