Khosrow Lashkari decided to hose down the parking lot of his Oxnard service station two days before his annual fuel tank inspection.
Water trickled through a manhole cover and triggered a tank alarm system that warns of leaks. Lashkari moved the system's sensor out of the way so he could shut off the alarm and keep his pumps flowing.
He said the action was temporary until he could get the water pumped out. He told tank inspectors of his plan, assuming they would understand.
Instead, Lashkari became the first gas station owner to be sued by the Ventura County district attorney's office for tampering with a fuel tank's alarm sensor. He settled the case last month, admitting no wrongdoing but agreeing to pay the county and the city $15,000 in fines.
California has long required gas stations to attach leak-detecting alarms to their underground fuel storage tank systems. But as regulators grow more vigilant about stopping the spread of contaminants into ground water, they are cracking down on what they see as a frustrating form of subterfuge by service station owners.
Across the state, regulators have fined dozens of operators they believe deliberately disabled their tanks' leak-detection systems. They say most tampering isn't done to cover up leaks. Instead, station owners may be convinced, like Lashkari, that their alarms are responding to false threats. They simply want to avoid the nuisance and disruption of business.
The problem, officials say, is that once an alarm is disengaged, it is unable to sound if a real leak occurs.
"It's like deactivating the smoke alarm in your house," said Shahla Farahnak, an engineer with the state Water Resources Control Board.
Tampering typically involves moving sensors to tank levels where they won't detect liquid. Although in some cases, regulators say, gas stations disconnect the alarm's wiring altogether.
Officials say sensor tampering has occurred since alarm systems were mandated in the 1980s. Mobil Oil Corp. was sued for allowing widespread monitoring lapses at stations in Orange County in the mid-1990s, and settled for more than $1 million.
With a maze of underground tank regulations to enforce, and tight staffing levels, most local regulatory agencies long maintained that they were too strapped to focus on individual sensor tampering cases.
But that began to change three years ago. Prompted by a state mandate requiring annual tank inspections, local regulators began increasing tank permit fees, adding inspectors, coordinating with prosecutors and cracking down on sensor tampering.
In Ventura County, Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Wold said several additional cases are pending, including some that could yield higher fines than Lashkari's.
Sacramento County began a formal crackdown in January. Since then, inspectors have cited 13 violators, including gas stations and private firms that provide on-site fueling for company vehicles. Those cited were not required to admit wrongdoing, but were fined $2,500, program supervisor Anthony Chu said.
"We are looking into other cases now," Chu said. "If the facility chooses not to settle, we would take it to the district attorney."
Larger jurisdictions are less likely to involve prosecutors unless a fuel leak actually occurs, but they are beefing up inspections nevertheless. Orange County environmental health inspectors find sensor tampering on a weekly basis, said Denise Fennessy, the county's hazardous materials manager. In Los Angeles County, the public works division identified more than 300 sensor tampering cases last year.
Lisa Brown, an attorney with Cal-EPA's enforcement division, said cases are difficult to build because gas station owners profess ignorance or blame their employees or service technicians. "Everybody points the finger the other way and says, 'Oh, Joe did it,' or, 'Oh, those darn vandals!' " Brown said. "But it's a serious problem."
The tanks under gas stations hold thousands of gallons of fuel. The fuel contains hazardous chemicals, including the additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, a suspected carcinogen. Fuel that seeps out of tanks and into soil can find its way into ground water.
Since 1984, when California began regulating fuel storage tanks, the law has required each to be fitted with a monitoring device to warn of a possible leak.
Lashkari learned his lesson at a price. It will take him months of work to cover his $15,000 fine. He is frustrated, he said, because he received bad advice from a service technician, and then Oxnard and Ventura County officials decided to make an example of him.
"I called a guy and said, 'Do we need to pump the water out before the test?' He said, 'No they're not there to check for water; you can wait until they do the test and then pump out the water.' "
When the city inspector arrived, Lashkari said, "I told him exactly what happened, but he said, 'No, no, it's leaking gasoline.' They wanted to make it a big deal. They just came down on me. Really, it was unfair."
"In my opinion, he's not the world's worst offender," said Wold, the deputy district attorney. "But I want people to understand, if they tamper with their sensors to avoid leak detection, they will be prosecuted. People have to stop doing this. It's too important to our environment."