The frequency and severity of flood events in eastern Australia has been extraordinary during 2022 and, as this article goes to print, a number of communities in south-western NSW and northern and central Victoria are bracing for flood levels not seen for more than 40 years.

When floods occur, the primary objective of business owners is to recommence trading as soon as possible. The pressure to re-open quickly is further intensified for businesses that provide services that are essential to the community’s recovery process including grocery businesses, chemists and service stations. But in their haste to reopen, service station businesses risk creating another headache that can have long term reputational consequences – selling fuel that is contaminated with water.

“The number of media inquiries relating to motorists experiencing problems with fuel that is allegedly contaminated with water has been substantial this year in the face of the significant floods that have been experienced in Queensland, NSW and Victoria”, said ACAPMA CEO Mark McKenzie.

“Satisfactory resolution of these issues is typically complex and time consuming. It often results in the business suffering reputational issues that impact trading revenues long after the flood waters have receded”, said Mark.

The best approach to this problem is to avoid selling contaminated fuel in the first place. That all comes down to taking all reasonable precautions and completing all appropriate checks before re-opening the service station to the public.

Many of the recommended checks are common sense. First and foremost, the flooded site should be cleaned and inspected for signs of obvious damage. No-one should enter the site if there are obvious signs of structural damage to the canopy or building, if overhead wiring is down, or if access and egress to the site is impeded by flood debris or damaged road pavement.

The next step is to inspect the switchboard to make sure it is clean and dry. If there is evidence that the switchboard has been flooded, an electrician should be called to inspect the switchboard and ensure it is safe and operational.

Once the switchboard check has been completed, all light switches and power points and equipment isolation switches should be switched ‘off’. The power should ideally be turned on circuit by circuit (i.e. shop lighting, shop equipment, canopy lighting, external lighting and other equipment) so that any damaged circuit can be quickly identified and isolated for repair.

Once all electrical checks have been completed – and all lighting and equipment appears to be operating satisfactorily – it is time to focus on the fuel system. All fuel deliveries should be paused until the following work is performed by a suitably qualified person:

  1. Check and inspect that the underground fuel tanks have not moved. Damaged to the concrete slab or ground in the vicinity of the underground storage tanks is generally an indicated that the tank has moved due to ground water movement. Where damage is observed, the tanks should not be used and the entire the UPSS system should be inspected by a qualified contractor.
  2. Check for the presence of water ingress to the tanks by confirming fuel levels and or tank measurement (i.e. dips or ATG). All dip caps and fill points should be inspected to ensure that they are sealed and dry. If the fill points are ringed by sediment, then chances are that water has entered the tank.
  3. Check the fill points on the forecourt to ensure that they are clean and dry. This check should extend to a check of the electrical earthing in the vicinity of the fill point.
  4. Check the pump/dispenser sumps and remove any water or sediment from the sumps/pans.
  5. Check the sumps of the VR2 pipe (if fitted) and ensure that all pipe fittings and sump seals are clean and dry.
  6. Open all fuel pipe/forecourt pump valve pits and remove any sediment or water that may be present.
  7. Inspect all forecourt pumps and hoses and nozzles for any signs of damage and remove the cover from any junction box that may have been affected by water ingress. Clean all sediment and remove any water from the junction box and vapour path spaces.
  8. Inspect and clean dispenser meters and pump displays (if affected)
  9. Test and operate forecourt pumps and dispensers. This is ideally done in ‘stand-alone’ mode in the first instance and then repeated under POS operation to ensure that the pumps are operating normally
  10. Check VR2 pump is operational (if fitted)
  11. Inspect and test Fuel Emergency Stop points
  12. Check cathodic protection system
  13. Check for contaminants in all monitoring wells (i.e. ground water monitoring well and tank observation wells). If fuel is found in these wells, the tanks should be inspected by a specialist contractor before use.

Once the fuel system checks are completed and all clearances are obtained, the site’s pollution control systems (and drains) should be inspected and cleared of flood debris and other contaminants.

If all three of the above checks (i.e. electrical system, fuel system and pollution control system) are completed satisfactorily, the operator can be relatively confident that the site is fit to return to operation.

It is vital, however, that the comprehensive fuel system checks are completed with integrity. Failure to undertake the proper checks of the fuel system, and remedy any issues observed, represents a serious risk of selling contaminated fuel to consumers and/or discharging fuel into the natural environment.

“It therefore follows that, regardless of the pressure for the business to reopen quickly, failure to follow the proper process for commissioning a fuel system after a flood event risks serious ongoing reputational damage and/or financial loss for the operator”, concluded Mark.

Given the increased incidence of flood events in the past year, ACAPMA is working to produce a Best Practice Guide (BPG) for reopening a service station after flooding. This work is expected to be completed before the end of the year.