The Shell gas station at the corner of Alexander and Princeton-Hightstown roads was closed on Nov. 27 as a result of reports of cars breaking down after buying gas there. The station has since reopened after a cleanup of the tank that dispensed the bad gas. (Staff photo by Bill Sanservino.)

Authorities are investigating an incident at a Princeton Junction gas station that hobbled numerous motorists’ cars and created the need for hundreds of dollars worth of repairs.

On Nov. 27, the Shell gas station at 74 Princeton Hightstown Road was reported to have dispensed fuel to customers that caused many of their cars to stop running and require towing. In some instances, the cars became disabled minutes after leaving the station.

The Shell station was temporarily shut down based on a preliminary analysis by the officials, and eventually reopened the following week after testing confirmed that the situation had been remedied.

The station did not return phone calls for comment on the situation. West Windsor Police said the Shell appears to be owned by Petroleum Marketing Group LLC of Woodbridge and is leased to Baldev Singh.

Authorities do not believe there was any criminal intent involved with the incident.

Reports of vehicle breakdowns were first posted on West Windsor community Facebook groups. Group members eventually reached the conclusion that the common denominator was the fuel purchased from the Shell station.

West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe says he first learned about the problem when somebody asked on Facebook whether anyone else was having a similar problem.

“Social media definitely helped, because it allowed people to realize that it wasn’t just a isolated problem with the gas. It became very apparent what the problem was,” Marathe said.

Once the issue became apparent, various residents notified the West Windsor Township Police, who sent some officers to the scene to investigate.

Also investigating were officials from the state Office of Weights and Measures, which ensures all weighing and measuring devices are inspected for accuracy, such as pumps at commercial gas stations.

West Windsor Police Chief Robert Garofalo said that the initial analysis of fuel samples from the station showed that the octane levels were abnormally low.

Octane is a chemical compound found in fuels, and the octane rating of a fuel tells how much the fuel can be compressed before it spontaneously ignites.

Gasoline is normally between 87 and 94 octane, depending on the quality, however the gasoline samples from the Shell station were in the 60s.

“Based on the information from vehicle owners and local repair stations, it appears that diesel was mixed in, but I can’t be sure,” Garofalo said.

“Most of the cars stalled and had to be towed. Depending on how full the tank was, cars were able to drive various distances,” Marathe said.

Julie Willmot, director of communications for Mercer County, on Dec. 7 said that the investigation into the cause of the incident had been passed on to the Mercer County Office of Weights and Measures.

She said that the procedure when there is a problem with a gas station is for Weights and Measures to perform an octane check, and then to send a sample to a third party contracting lab for testing to analyze the gasoline for problems.

Meanwhile, the tanks are cleaned and refilled, and a then second test is done on the new gas to ensure that the problem has been fixed. If the results are good, then the gas station is allowed to open.

The News confirmed on Dec. 7 that the station was open, and it was in the process of receiving a fresh delivery of gasoline.

Mark Cuomo, the owner of Mark’s Trackside Auto on Alexander Road, had several customers come in with cars that weren’t running after they bought gasoline from the Shell station, and explained why these cars suddenly broke down.

“The engine (for these cars) isn’t designed to run on diesel, so it’s not going to run at all,” he said. “It’s a much lower octane fuel, and takes a much higher compression to make it burn.”

“As soon as this impure mixture gets into the engine, it can corrode the fuel line, and cause engine damage if left unchecked,” said Garofalo. “ But if you get to it right away and siphon it all out and purge the system, I think you can save the engine.”

Cuomo added that the engines he worked on in relation to this problem should not face any permanent damage.

Garofalo, meanwhile, says he does not believe this is a criminal issue. “It would be criminal if there was any intent to damage the car, but I don’t think there was any intent here. We’re pretty confident that this was an industrial-type accident,” he said.

As of now, it is believed that a diesel delivery was put into a storage tank for regular gasoline, or that “the truck was used for gasoline without being cleaned. However, (Shell) is currently cleaning the tanks and taking necessary precautions before they reopen,” Marathe said. The distributor of the gasoline was the Petroleum Marketing Group.

Regarding the cost of damages, Cuomo noted that the average cost of repairs for the cars that he worked on was about $250, which included removing the contaminated fuel and changing the fuel filter.

Garofalo said that the department hasn’t had any communication with Shell, since this is an internal matter for the company. “We’re doing our part by trying to help residents get all the information they need.”

“If somebody has any problems, they can certainly get in touch with the township, but so far the company has taken responsibility for the issue,” Marathe added.

Those who wish to file a claim with Shell should contact the police to get a copy of the report. To file a complaint with Shell, call (888) 467-4355.

According to a spokesperson in the Shell Solutions Center, people should file a claim as soon as possible. In order to receive reimbursement they will be asked to provide proof of purchase (receipt for gas) and claims for reimbursement including repair costs, public transportation costs. Reimbursements should be issued within 30 days.

Looking forward, Marathe believes that the West Windsor Township Council will not take any direct action on this issue, since it seems to have been a mistake rather than fraud. “I sincerely hope it was a one-time mistake that doesn’t have any long-term ramifications for the township,” Marathe said.

He concluded by thanking those who worked to solve this issue. “I want to thank everyone at Mark’s Trackside Auto, because they helped with towing for AAA, and realized there was a problem. I thank them, and the Valero station owner, for being proactive, and preventing an ever bigger problem from happening.”