To most Lawrence residents it seems that state regulators let the local Presto station off easy.
It's true that a $4,900 fine seems insignificant in relation to the danger and damage attributed to fuel that leaked out of the station's tanks into a several-block area of Old West Lawrence and has been blamed for a fire that destroyed a neighboring house.
But if Lawrence residents are questioning the size of the fine levied against Presto, they and other Kansans also should be questioning a state regulatory system that allows such a leak to go undetected until it causes a potentially deadly fire.
The owners of the Presto station apparently did what they are required by Kansas law to do. Gasoline stations whose records show two monthly fuel losses that equal 1 percent or more of their monthly sales are required to report that loss to the state. The Presto station has monthly sales of 70,000 gallons, and 1 percent would be 700 gallons.
In February, the local station found statistical evidence that it had lost 2,300 gallons of fuel that month. Station officials didn't file a report with the state, however, until March when a second loss exceeding 1 percent of their sales was discovered. The state didn't begin investigating the discrepancy until mid-April, then determined that the "lost" fuel actually was the result of a calibration error on the station's pumps. It wasn't until after the April 30 fire destroyed the apartment house at 838 La. that the leak was discovered.
The apparent flaws in this process are significant. First, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's determination that the problem was in the calibration of the pumps rather than a leak raises questions about how thorough the investigation was.
There also is reason to wonder whether it should take two incidents of significant gasoline loss to trigger a report or investigation, especially when a station is located in the middle of a residential area like the local Presto station. Perhaps if the threshold had been lower than 700 gallons - or if even single monthly losses had to be reported - the local leak would have been discovered and corrected before the dangerous fire.
Presto must pay the first $5,000 of the cleanup costs, along with the fine, the costs associated with reopening the station and perhaps future legal settlements, but Kansans also are going to be stuck with a significant bill to clean up this mess. The state estimated it already has spent $500,000 on the cleanup, and officials say they expect to keep operating "vapor extraction" equipment for another year, so the costs will continue to rise.
The money to pay for the cleanup will come from the Kansas Petroleum Storage Tank Release Trust Funds. You may never have heard of that fund, but some of your money is going into it every time you buy gasoline, because it is financed by a 1-cent fee on every gallon of petroleum (except aviation fuel) that is manufactured or imported into Kansas.
That such a costly and potentially deadly incident could occur when a station was attempting to comply with state law is an indication that the law may warrant some review and perhaps some revision.