Boaters rocked by effect of ethanol-laced fuel

Times Staff Writer

Something was wrong with Sally Ann. ¶ For months, she sputtered and choked, and Barry Treahy’s remedies weren’t working. He kept changing her fuel filters. Then he rebuilt her carburetor. Finally, he cut into her gas tank, cleaned out the mysterious caramel-colored gunk and patched her up -- twice.¶ Disaster struck on a summer day in San Diego, when Treahy’s beloved 20-foot fishing boat was parked street side with the outer hull plug open to drain any residual water. The boat’s 55-gallon gas tank failed and gasoline streamed into the bilge and down the street. ¶ “I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out at first,” Treahy said of Sally Ann’s chronic troubles. Finally, he found the answer in a boating magazine. Ethanol-laced gasoline was dissolving his boat’s fiberglass fuel tank, sending bits of resin to clog filters and ultimately eating a hole all the way through the tank. ¶ Years of adding ethanol to gasoline to reduce air pollution and foreign oil dependence has had a nasty side effect: The stuff appears to damage boat fuel tanks made of fiberglass. And California is a floating testing ground for the ethanol effect.

At the beginning of 2004, all gasoline sold in the state was required to carry 5.7% ethanol as a replacement for the banned fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, which was fouling groundwater supplies. Some boaters were unaware of the ramifications of the switch.

Lawrence Turner, stuck with more than $35,000 in ethanol-related damage to his boat, decided to fight back. Last week, the Studio City resident sued Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and eight other gasoline producers and distributors in U.S. District Court, arguing that the companies sold gasoline at marinas without warning boaters of ethanol’s harmful consequences.

“It caught me completely by surprise,” said Turner, whose twin-engine, semi-custom Mediterranean sport fisher named Grateful Med is still out of commission. “I figured if you went to a marine gas station and filled up your tank, you were fine to operate.”

Ethanol-blended fuel destroyed the boat’s fiberglass fuel tank, and mechanics had to cut through the hull and remove the ruined tank piece by piece. A new, aluminum tank was being installed last week. Engine repairs are still to come.


“As I reflected on the situation, I thought about the fact that there were never any warnings from the fuel companies that the product they were selling could damage the tank that it was going into,” said Turner, a 50-year-old accountant, attorney and diet company president. “What if people pulled up to their local gas station [in their cars] and all of the sudden their gas tank started dissolving?”

A Chevron spokesman said the company hadn’t seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment. Shell Oil Co., one of the defendants in the lawsuit, Monday rejected the notion that oil companies were to blame for boat damage caused by ethanol-blended gasoline.

“There were years of advance notification that this change was coming,” and ethanol’s effect on fiberglass has been known for a long time, Shell President John Hofmeister said Monday while attending a low-carbon fuels conference in Sacramento. “Any boat owner or any boat seller or any boat maintenance shop that didn’t know about this impending change and the potential consequences simply wasn’t listening or reading.”

Turner seeks damages and restitution from the fuel companies. He also wants the case to be given class-action status so other boat owners in California could recoup the cost of ethanol-fuel-related repairs. There are nearly 950,000 pleasure boats registered in the state, but it’s unclear how many of those were built with fiberglass tanks and how many might have been damaged by ethanol-blended fuel.

Brian Kabateck, Turner’s attorney, said an expert estimated that about 10% of all the boats in California have some sort of fiberglass material used in their tanks. Repair costs could vary dramatically.

Bob Adriance, technical director for the Boat Owners Assn. of the United States, said ethanol’s dangers were widely known these days among the group’s 650,000 members. But skippers in California and New York, the first states to adopt ethanol-blended gasoline, had to figure it out themselves.

“They really got hammered because they didn’t know anything. They just suddenly had filters being clogged, and then, some people not only had to replace their fiberglass tanks, they also had to replace engines,” Adriance said. “It can cost tens of thousands of dollars -- more than the boat’s worth in many cases.”

Adriance said they also were the first to suffer from ethanol’s other effects, including its tendency to scour a fuel tank of gums, resins and debris, carrying the gunk into fuel filters. Ethanol also attracts water, and over time, water-laden ethanol can separate from the rest of the gasoline, wreaking havoc with the engine.

Those problems require boaters to make adjustments, but they are manageable, said Adriance, who also edits Seaworthy, a publication by sister organization BoatUS Marine Insurance. He said newer boats had ethanol-tolerant fiberglass tanks and other components, but older boats with certain types of fiberglass tanks, rubber seals, hoses and gaskets and the like could be severely damaged by ethanol-laced fuel.

California’s Air Resources Board, the agency that shepherded the switch from MTBE to ethanol as a fuel additive, was surprised to hear that boats had been damaged by the state’s 5.7% ethanol fuel blend, which is well below the 10% blends common elsewhere in the country.

“If this reported case is with a California boat that was using California fuel, this would be the first that I’ve heard of it,” agency official Jim Guthrie said.

He asked boaters to notify the air board of any problems, especially because California plans to raise the ethanol component in gasoline to 10%.

“To my mind, the state isn’t in a position to know about all of the effects,” said Adriance of BoatUS.

As for the lawsuit against oil companies, though, “it seems to me that they have a legitimate point,” Adriance said. “Nobody told the boat owners. The oil companies or somebody ought to have warned them.”