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85 octane not foreign to Mitchell

A blender pump is pictured in March at Jack's Sinclair in Mitchell. At the time, the pump was selling 85 octane fuel that was clearly labeled. Fuel with an 85 octane rating has since become controversial in the state. (Chris Huber/Republic)

Much of the recent talk about 85 octane gasoline has centered around its sale in western South Dakota.

But the controversial fuel grade has been sold in Mitchell.

A Daily Republic file photo shows a pump was labeled for the sale of 85 octane fuel at a Mitchell gas station in March. The photo, taken for a story about ethanol blender pumps at Jack's Sinclair, shows an 85 octane fuel label on a pump with a red label reading "Regular Unleaded." A similar photo was taken Aug. 1, this time with 87 listed as the lowest-grade fuel and the same red label.

Tim Wiebelhaus, of Jack's Sinclair, said his station received one shipment of 85 octane earlier this year. He said the station brought the product in because it was available at the time and priced right for customers and his station. The station placed the appropriate labels on the pumps.

"We made sure we labeled our pumps immediately," he said.

Wiebelhaus said his decision to replace 85 octane after one shipment was made based on the chance to bring back 87 octane again. He said his station is not under investigation and Jack's Sinclair was inspected in May.

The May inspection was one of 504 the state Office of Weights and Measures conducted at 189 gas stations in 54 cities over a three-month period beginning in March. Inspectors were looking for mislabeled octane levels in gasoline, and the special inspections were conducted in addition to twice-yearly regular inspections.

The state summary report on the inspections shows that 31 incidents of mislabeled gas pumps were found in 14 cities.

Because of ongoing investigations, state officials will not say which stations or cities had mislabeled pumps, according to state Director of Weights and Measures David Pfahler. The state attorney general and county state's attorneys are investigating the pump problems.

Octane explained

An octane rating is a measure of the performance of a fuel. Use of gasoline with a low octane rating can cause engine problems.

The controversy in South Dakota over 85 octane gas does not include E85, which is an expression of the amount of ethanol mixed into the fuel rather than an indication of octane rating.

It was recently discovered that, due to a technicality, 85 octane fuel is illegal in South Dakota. Gov. Dennis Daugaard has issued a temporary ruling allowing the sale of 85 octane in the state while a permanent ruling is considered. There have also been accusations of gas stations selling 85 octane fuel labeled as 87 octane.

Harms Oil Company, in Brookings, and M.G. Oil Company, of Rapid City, are the target of a class-action lawsuit filed in Jerauld County by state Rep. Mitch Fargen, D-Flandreau, and five others. The suit claims the companies sold 85 octane gasoline labeled as 87.

Jeff Engebretson, station manager at the 44 Road Stop in Platte, said his station doesn't sell 85 octane fuel and he does not know of anyone else in the area who does. Engebretson, whose station is Clark-branded, said selling 85 octane would hurt his business.

"I would like to keep selling 87 and 89," Engebretson said. "It would be a matter of what's available."

Engebretson said part of his primary customer base -- boaters headed for the Missouri River -- do not want anything less than 87 octane for their boats.

Comments pour in

The Department of Public Safety took written public comments to help with a future decision about the legality of 85 octane in the state. The comments are published on the DPS website and include opinions from car manufacturers, oil companies and suppliers, along with citizens.

One comment comes from Duane Harms, of Coffee Cup Fuel Stop, in support of 85 octane fuels. Coffee Cup Fuel Stop owns six locations in South Dakota, including Vivian and Plankinton, both of which are Sinclair-branded businesses.

"I would urge the State to do all it can to encourage refiners to remain in South Dakota by keeping their sales opportunities as great as possible," the letter reads. "To that end, it is very important that the State allow the sale of 85 octane to the 99th meridian so that Coffee Cup and this geography can access the gasoline and diesel fuel supplied by Sinclair."

The Vivian store manager said that location does not sell 85 octane gasoline and there are no plans to do so at this time.

The 99th meridian would roughly follow state Highway 45 and run near Kimball. Harms called the previous line at the 102nd meridian "superficial" in his letter. The 102nd meridian is 10 miles east of Wall.

Eighty-five octane gasoline is common in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado because of higher-altitudes in those areas. While the grade is cheaper, most warranties on cars and trucks require the use of 87 octane or better. Sinclair operates refineries in Casper, Wyo., and Sinclair, Wyo., and there are roughly 100 Sinclair stations in South Dakota.

Shortage possible?

Station owners have argued that without 85 octane, there will be a gas shortage in South Dakota.

That threat is very real, according to one Mitchell station owner, because South Dakota has a smaller population. If there's a limited amount of gasoline coming from Oklahoma or Kansas, the owner said, and the supplier has to pick between a bigger city or South Dakota, the state's odds of getting the better gasoline are not good.

"If the refineries in the western states like Montana and Wyoming are not distributing into South Dakota, we're going to have a lot bigger problems," the station owner said, who asked not to be identified.

State Rep. Lance Carson, R-Mitchell, owned a gas station in Mitchell from 1979 to 2005. He said he never sold 85 octane and believes 87 octane should be the standard.

"I think the 87 needs to be in there. When you look at the owner's manual, they recommend 87 or better to fit the warranty of the cars," Carson said.

From his experience, independent station owners have a propensity to buy on price instead of quality. Carson said most major brand stores won't buy 85 octane fuel.

"If you look at a Mobil or a Shell or a station of that nature, they're not selling 85. You have an obligation to the company to pull their products out of their pipeline," he said.