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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Swerving to Avoid Hazardous Gasoline Stations

Sick of his engine acting up, Mr. X decides to have his gasoline checked for impurities. He hands a sample in at the lab and a couple of weeks later returns to pick up the results.

"I'm sorry, sir," says the lab assistant. "It looks like your horse has diabetes.'

But bad luck in choosing a gas station is no laughing matter. Sulfur impurities, diluted fuel and gas spiked with octane-boosting admixtures can leave engines ravaged and drivers seething.

Twenty-seven percent of the gasoline samples collected by the Moscow transport inspectorate last summer from about a third of Moscow's roughly 650 gas stations were found to be substandard.

Incriminating factors included high levels of sulfur due to poor refinery technology and admixtures such as lead tetraethyl, benzene, iron and even naphthalene — all of which are dangerous for engines and the environment.

"In the past, rocket fuel admixtures were used. They are highly toxic … but they're not used anymore," said Alexander Zavrazhin, head of the ecology department with the Moscow transport inspectorate, in a recent interview.

These days, gasoline's combustion is often boosted by adding ether, which can temporarily increase octane levels by as much as 10 to 15 units, Zavrazhin said.

Thus unadulterated gasoline with an octane level of about 66 could be turned into basic 80-octane gas.

But the high doesn't last long. "If the gas isn't sold soon, the ether evaporates and the octane level falls back to its previous level," said Zavrazhin.

One disappointed driver recently complained of "spark plugs as red as crayfish," on the web site ( He ascribed the complaint to low octane fuel even though he filled up with what was purported to be 95-octane at his favorite station on Oktyabrsky Prospekt.

A mechanic employed with the Autotemp service station said high-performance cars don't run well on gas lower than 95. An octane level of 93 is considered the equivalent of premium level gasoline in the West.

Generally, the big-name gas stations are the safest bet, though this is by no means a hard and fast rule.

A driver with a Western law firm, who gave his name only as Sergei, said he always fills his Daewoo Nexia at BP or LUKoil. Other drivers questioned include the Tyumen Oil Co., or TNK, and Yukos on their list of reliable gas stations.

Zavrazhin gave a harsh assessment of smaller chains. While local and foreign oil majors monitor the passage of their product all the way from the deposits to their own filling stations, smaller chains rely more on middlemen.

"The gas goes through many hands — one puts in admixtures, one dilutes it," said Zavrazhin.

While BP has had problems with the gas provided by the Moscow refinery, the company can ensure the quality of its gas stations by using a three-tier system of checks, according to a press service representative. Checks are conducted as the gas leaves the petroleum storage depot, then again at the gas station's storage tank, with the third stage in the form of regular checks by the transport inspectorate, he added.

TNK's fuel, which comes to Moscow from its Ryazan factory, also undergoes rigorous testing to ensure that it adheres to strict ecological standards and its filling stations get regular company spot checks, according to a press service spokesman.

To stem the tide of risky gas, City Hall in 1996 instructed the inspectorate to clamp down on artificially enhanced gasoline as well as more potent bootleg mixes.

Four years later — and with two key pieces of legislation enacted since the inspectorate's inspection last summer — the trial and error nature of a driver's search for reliable gas may be lessening in the capital.

As an incentive to gas stations to maintain high standards, the Moscow Fuel Association has started awarding blue quality signs to those meeting its quality checks.

A total of 12 firms have been checked and 133 gas stations issued with the special signs — a further 80 applications are in the pipeline, said Grigory Sergienko, executive director of the Moscow Fuel Association.

Sergienko said a well-publicized campaign for issuing the signs is the best way to show who is honest on the market and who isn't.

Zavrazhin agreed. "The stations themselves apply to the Moscow Fuel Association and then sign a code of honor whereby they are bound to sell fuel in accordance with state standards," he said.

"If breaches are discovered, they don't get a certificate or the quality sign.

"If one station has a quality sign but the next one doesn't, the average man in the street won't use it," Zavrazhin added.