Washington lab faking critical fuel tests while taxpayers foot the bill?

Washington lab faking critical fuel tests while taxpayers foot the bill? »Play Video
VANCOUVER, Wash. -- Is a Washington lab faking critical fuel tests while taxpayers foot the bill? The KOMO 4 Problem Solvers investigated that Vancouver, Washington lab and the state workers who are supposed to be regulating it. We found it's not just your tax dollars at stake, but it could also put your car or truck's engine at risk.

"Fuel Only" is the name of the testing lab. And when we first visited it in early October asking to see inside, the owner threw us out. Chemist Eric Dekker says we could have expected that; he worked at Fuel Only for 18 months before blowing the whistle.

"I'm not gonna lie, I'm not gonna cheat, I'm not gonna steal, I'm not gonna deceive anybody," he said.

Dekker claims he saw Fuel Only fake hundreds of biodiesel tests paid for by the state. So what's the risk? The engines in hundreds of thousands of vehicles in our state. Driver Richard Draves got educated before switching to biodiesel in his car. He knows, "if that fuel isn't up to standards, the engines won't run right."

The tests the state pays for should guarantee the quality of every drop of biodiesel sold at the pump here. But it's not just biodiesel. Dan Freeman is Seattle's "pied piper" of biodiesel -- one of its biggest advocates. He sells biodiesel out of his Ballard automotive shop - Dr. Dan's Biodiesel. Last year Washington drivers pumped over 900 million gallons of regular diesel fuel. And Freeman says much of that fuel contains at least "some" biodiesel. He adds, "quality is a critical thing, it's the survival of the industry."

Dekker told the Problem Solvers he quit Fuel Only last year in disgust. "They're deceiving their clients." Their clients are "us" - the taxpayers. Over the past three years, the state Department of Agriculture has paid Fuel Only $620,681 for biodiesel testing. "None of this has been validated," says Dekker, "none of it's been done at all, period, one iota, not one drop."

"The whole time I was there it was a dust collector"

Whistleblower Dekker says he tried reporting Fuel Only to the state starting in October of last year with no luck. "They're hoping that I'll go away; they're hoping that I'll get bored, or frustrated and just give up." So he turned to the Problem Solvers. And at his new lab in Boise, Idaho Dekker showed us exactly what he claims Fuel Only is "faking". The first machine he showed us, called a "Rancimat", tests how well fuel will hold up when it's stored, which is particularly important in wetter climates. "This is what Fuel Only doesn't have," says Dekker, "and that they were fudging the numbers on."

A second machine tests how the fuel does in cold weather; it measures glycerine levels. Dekker says Fuel Only does have one of these, but he claims it never worked. "The whole time I was there it was a dust collector." Both machines - and their critical tests - are required by the state contract.

Kirk Robinson is the head of the Weights and Measures division of the State Department of Agriculture; he directly oversees the contract with Fuel Only. He says his department's been investigating Fuel Only since last December, "we immediately started looking into it." But he admits no one from his department has visited the lab in person since they opened their investigation. When the Problem Solvers asked him why he responded, "well, one is that we felt that, our first, we wanted to look at the data."

We filed a public records request as we wanted to see just what the state did to investigate Fuel Only over the past 10 months. According to the state's files they: examined past test results, sent just five duplicate samples to another lab for comparison about which Robinson says, "we have found that there were some concerns." And the state also repeatedly asked Fuel Only for data from their machines. Much of that data, they have still never received.

When we asked him about the 10-month duration of their investigation Robinson told us that they were, "watching this very closely." But during that 10 month period the state continued to pay Fuel Only nearly $200,000. "We take any allegation like this very seriously because this is taxpayer money that we're using, and we want to make sure we're doing a good job of using it," Robinson said.

"We have never falsified anything"

When the Problem Solvers first visited Fuel Only, General Manager Clark Fraser gave us conflicting information about some specific tests first telling us, "we're currently working with an older method and that's again proprietary information because of the fact that it's an older method." Then he told us, "but we are actually sending out samples, out-source samples that we don't do in house."

We went back when owner Malala Pou agreed to do an interview with his attorney present. He told us, "as far as allegations go, we have never falsified anything." Pou let us look inside his lab but would not let us take pictures, telling us, "I don't feel comfortable doing that."

But once inside, instead of finding a "Rancimat" like the one in Dekker's lab, they showed us an older machine that looks like a square metal sink with an electric plug. I wrote down the make and model; it's a CMS 392-142, and later contacted the international association, ASTM, that literally writes the testing standards. They told me unequivocally only the "rancimat" machine, is acceptable for meeting the specifications set up nationally and required by the state contract.

We told Robinson the information we were able to amass within just a day and a half of digging and asked him to compare it to their 10-month investigation, "again, we were looking at the data on this and we wanted to be knowledgeable on what we were looking at there."

After our last visit to Fuel Only, the owner admitted to the state that there were inaccuracies with the two types of tests we asked about and they're offering to pay or credit the state for those inaccuracies. For now, the state has stopped using Fuel Only and the Washington State Patrol is investigating.

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Update: Read statements from Governor Chris Gregoire and the state Department of Agriculture responding to this story.