Kerosene purchased between Dec. 8 and Dec. 19 at the Shell station at 1225 W. Lebanon St. in Mount Airy off U.S. 52 was contaminated with gasoline and can explode or cause a fire, according to a warning issued by the Surry County EMS.
The mixture could cause a dangerous explosion or fire if used in any heater, Surry County EMS Director John Shelton confirmed. Customers who bought kerosene from the Shell station between the dates cited should stop using it and remove it from the home immediately, Shelton said. If fuel was placed inside a heater, the device should not be used.
Horace P. Bondurant, the present of Mount Airy Oil Co., which operates the convenience store near Food Lion in Westwood Shopping Center where the tainted kerosene was sold, said Saturday that the problem resulted from an error by a tanker truck driver.
The driver, employed by Reliable Tank Lines of Winston-Salem, had hauled 7,500 gallons of gasoline to the business earlier this month, and mistakenly pumped 1,542 gallons of that load into a kerosene tank containing 2,813 gallons. That resulted in a kerosene-gasoline mixture of about 4,350 gallons, with Bondurant explaining that those amounts could be pinpointed by sophisticated equipment used by the company.
Heater Blows Up
“We found out about it at 10 o’clock Friday morning,” Bondurant added Saturday. “A guy on Franklin Road said his heater blew up and thought he had gasoline in it.” That man also went out and bought a new heater and put the tainted fuel in it — which caused that unit to be damaged as well.
The call prompted company personnel to check the kerosene tank at the Shell station, where they smelled gasoline and immediately locked up the tank.
Mount Airy Oil Co. then put out the word through various news and social media outlets to alert people to the risk from the gas-tainted kerosene. “It’s very dangerous,” Bondurant said, particularly in cases where someone is trying to fill up a heater that is burning, which can cause the highly volatile gasoline fumes to ignite.
The notification process included a reverse 911 call in which recorded messages are sent via telephone on a mass basis. “We covered 7,800 land lines within a five-mile radius,” said Shelton, the EMS official, who added that the effort also sought to reach persons in southern Carroll County, Va., who might have bought the tainted fuel.
Mount Airy Oil Co. officials have been advising affected customers to contact the business.
By calling the company at 786-7660, they can access a recorded message containing information about the situation, including a warning to those who bought kerosene from the pump at the Shell station between Dec. 8 and Dec. 19. The message advises affected customers to call 710-0419 for further details.
The response so far has resulted in the tainted kerosene being recovered from multiple residences, Bondurant said.
By around 5:45 p.m. Saturday, all but about 150 gallons of the dangerous mixture had been accounted for, the company president added.
“Some of that has been burned,” he said of an unknown portion of the tainted kerosene supply which was bought and already used in space heaters, apparently without incident. Shelton said there had been no confirmed fires caused by the contaminated fuel, but that two which have occurred would be investigated to see if contaminated fuel was a factor.
Bondurant said Mount Airy Oil Co. staff members have been working hard this weekend to make things right.
“All the heaters have been replaced,” he said of those that have been damaged which the company has been made aware of so far. It also has been replacing the tainted kerosene that is recovered.
“It was a priority,” Bondurant said of the vigorous efforts to mitigate a kind of situation his company has never before faced.
“I’ve been in the oil business for 25 years, and it’s the first time it’s happened,” the Mount Airy Oil president added. “It’s been a nightmare, (but) I’m more concerned with human life.”
Shelton acknowledged the tremendous effort on the part of the company to notify the public. “The manager, Leon Slate, called and made us aware,” the EMS official said.
“He went 150 percent,” Shelton said of Slate, “to make sure they got the alert out to everybody.”