As people here and across the country opened their hearts and wallets last week to help their fellow Americans stricken by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, one local gas station did something different.
ALTHOUGH OIL operations damaged by the storm sent gas prices soaring to more than $3 a gallon, last Friday the Shell station at Route 29 and Union Mill Road in Clifton jacked up its price to $5.99 a gallon.
The jump was so huge that it was publicized on both CNN and "NBC Nightly News." And local residents were outraged.
"I think it's an embarrassing display of greed by someone in our community," said Jeff Flading of Fairfax National Estates. "And it was shown on TV as a benchmark of the most greedy display of price gouging in the nation — right in our own backyard."
The station later dropped its prices to $2.95, $3.05 and $3.15 for, respectively, regular, plus and supreme gasoline; and by Monday at 3:30 p.m., its supply was depleted. Meanwhile, station owner Steve Hauer referred press inquiries about Friday's pricing to spokeswoman Anne Peebles with Shell external affairs in Houston, Texas.
"It's a Shell station we supply, but do not operate," she said. "We own the property, but the business is independently owned. While we certainly encourage all of our retailers and wholesalers to price responsibly, all our independent owners are free to set their own prices."
However, added Peebles, "Shell does not condone price gouging, and we investigate and take action where needed. Supply is definitely tight in certain places along the Eastern Seaboard because of interruptions in both production and transportation. I do think he was trying to recover any lost costs because of interruption of supply. I know we're working around the clock to get trucks [to deliver more fuel] to our stations."
Peebles said customers may lodge complaints with the Virginia attorney general to report any instances of perceived price gouging. They may also be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Regarding the Shell Station in Clifton, she said, "We have spoken to station management and encouraged them to practice restraint when pricing gasoline."
STILL, MANY residents were livid about the station charging twice as much for gasoline as were other area stations. And they intend to turn their anger into action. "Maybe the citizens of Centreville and Clifton should boycott the Shell Station at Route 29 and Union Mill," said Bull Run Estates' Mark McConn. "They should also write Shell's corporate offices to complain about the station."
He said he was also upset because "this was a station that [local] citizens groups had ongoing problems with" — dating back several years to when that station's owner erected a huge, decorative windmill and lighthouse along its property bordering Route 29, without first obtaining county permission and permits to do so.
"And then they cut down trees that were proffered by Shell to be left between [the station] and the townhouses on the other side of Union Mill Road," said McConn. "The station does not seem to want to be part of the community. So if people boycott them, it'll show the political will of the community."
Because a third of the oil platforms were lost in the hurricane, he said, "We're at a time when everyone's asking us to understand that oil prices are going up. But then to have someone turn around and jack up the price — in dollars — irritates you. And the only way to get even with them is to boycott them. It's a tough situation, but this just isn't right."
Although residents initially thought the station could be prosecuted for its actions under an anti-price-gouging law enacted by Gov. Mark Warner's order declaring a state of emergency, the law's wording is a bit vague and the prices may have been raised prior to the emergency order.
Nonetheless, said Flading, "I think what [the station owner] did — trying to make as much money as he could before running out of gas — defines price gouging. Given the tragedy underway for so many, it is an additional offense." Besides, he said, that station is not the only game in town: "There's certainly plenty of other gas stations for people to use."
Virginia Run's Jim Hart called the whole thing "Shell-fish" and unfortunate. "I don't think our folks locally are going to put up with that sort of thing," he said. "I think if they can buy cheaper gas elsewhere, they will."
Carol Hawn, of Centreville's Old Mill community, was "shocked" that the incident made national TV news. And she said it's "not something our community needs to be known for."
"IT APPEARED evident to me that the price was outside anything I had heard of," said Hawn. "And given these economic times and the fact that Hurricane Katrina will be impacting every one of us for a long time, it's not a time to be taking advantage of people."
Often, she explained, people panic when they think they'll be without an important resource for awhile. And, she said, the Shell station owner "took unfair advantage" by "playing on people's fears." But if anything good can come out of the current gas crisis, she said, "Maybe this will force people to realize that telework, public transit and buses are legitimate means of transportation."
Also angry about the Shell station's actions was former Fairfax County police officer Mike Bishop of Centreville's Belle Pond Farm community. "When I was a patrol officer in the 1970s, I had to work the gas lines during the odd-and-even gas-purchasing days, so this really struck a chord with me," he said. "But to me, this was worse, because this was taking advantage of neighbors — people who [that station] serves every day."
Bishop even e-mailed Shell corporate headquarters about what happened, saying "they should take corporate sanctions against the owner." Said Bishop: "After 9/11, we should have learned the lesson of helping each other. And people don't forget this stuff. My wife and I go past this station every day, but we're not going to buy our gas there, anymore."
Hart said it's obvious that gas prices have been rising. "But I wonder if this is related to the hurricane, or if gas stations are just using it as an excuse [to make money]," he said. "I think this is also going to have an impact on people at the lower end of the economy, as more of their income goes toward gas, instead of food or rent."
He believes different brands of gas are more or less interchangeable in vehicles. He also believes that local residents are going to remember how this Shell Station skyrocketed its prices after the hurricane. "It cannot help this station in the long run, and I hope we will not see this kind of pricing again," said Hart. "I hope this was an aberration."