More than 100 police cars in Miami-Dade and West Palm Beach suffered severe engine damage the past few weeks, and officials said Thursday they’re confident the cause is what they suspected: A distributor filled their supply tanks with diesel fuel instead of unleaded gas.
Miami-Dade and West Palm contract with separate fuel supply companies. But according to City Administrator Jeff Green, both companies get fuel from PortMiami and use one or more of the same distributors to truck fuel to the municipal tanks.
As the city, county and companies investigate, the number of police cars out of service keeps changing as engines are replaced on some and problems are evaluated on others.
The number of new West Palm Beach police cars sidelined with motor trouble is up to 15, with as many as 21 more also needing engines replaced, at $6,000 each — potentially putting more than half the fleet out of action, though not all at the same time.
Meanwhile, as of Thursday Miami-Dade County had 71 vehicles with similar problems, 66 of them patrol cars. Twenty-one had been placed back in service but inspections on others continued.
Forty-five of the police cars require “major engine repairs or total engine replacement,” an official said.
Those 45 cars down, some of them Fords, some Dodges, represent 1.4 percent of the patrol fleet, said the official, Victoria Palomino, of the county Internal Services Department. The department is diverting cars from elsewhere in the county to minimize the impact on patrols, she said.
“Engine replacements are ongoing and will take some time to complete,” she said in an email. “With such a large number going down at the same time, it is difficult to place an estimated date for the repairs to be completed. We are utilizing every available resource to remedy this situation as soon as possible.”
Both departments found diesel fuel in supply tanks that were supposed to have unleaded fuel in them. Both get their fuel through the PortMiami.
Miami-Dade uses supplier Indigo Energy. West Palm has a contract with Mansfield Oil Co.
Green pointed to Sun Fuels, a Tampa company, as a trucking company the suppliers have in common. But Sun Fuels owner Pam Talbot said Friday her company checked its records, gauge readings and other documentation and determined it had nothing to do with any bad delivery. There are about a dozen companies that handle such deliveries out of Miami, she said.
“If Mr. Green wants to see my paperwork, I’ll be more than happy to provide it to him,” she said. “He has no clue what the hell he’s talking about.”
Sun Fuels doesn’t even supply the kind of bio-diesel with which the police tanks apparently were contaminated, she said.
Green responded that he didn’t mean to imply that Sun Fuels was the only distributor the suppliers had in common. “We are looking at everything,” he said.
John Mansfield, CEO of fuel supplier Indigo Energy of Gainesville, Ga., said after being alerted by Miami-Dade, his company tested two county fuel storage tanks police use and, as the department did, the company found the gas tanks had diesel in them.
“We pumped it out and things are back to normal,” he said Wednesday, adding that the company paid to dispose of the fuel.
“No one’s been able to determine how the diesel got into the gas,” he said.
As of Wednesday, West Palm had not contacted its supplier because the city is continuing to inspect and investigate the problem first, Green said.
Mansfield officials said they learned of the problem Thursday through the Palm Beach Post and did not believe they were West Palm’s supplier. The company’s general counsel, Brad Puryear, called back later and said staffers were trying to track down whether in fact the company was involved.
But according to documents provided by the city, Mansfield is under contract from 2016 to 2019 as West Palm’s supplier of bulk fuel, gasoline and diesel.
Indigo and Mansfield, both out of Gainesville, Ga., are owned by competing brothers, Indigo’s John Mansfield said, and “have no connection to each other at all.”
What the two companies likely have in common is getting their fuel from major oil company storage tanks at the port, as all suppliers do, John Mansfield said.
And, as Green said, they hire some of the same companies to deliver it.
Asked about Indigo’s potential liability for the damage, John Mansfield acknowledged that as likely. “We didn’t touch any of the fuel, but we’re the supplier, so unfortunately I’m sure we will be liable for it,” he said.
A handful of Palm Beach County police departments contacted, including Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, said they had not had car issues.
But Green said West Palm’s problem is “identical” to Miami-Dade’s. The blame clearly lies in the supply chain, he said.
The high-performance West Palm engines are made for police cars, and the cars were all two years old or newer. The issue, still being diagnosed, has to do with oil levels and corrosion in the Ford Taurus Cruisers and Explorer SUVs, City Administrator Jeff Green said. Mechanics found oil was getting sucked into the engine air intake.
Bad fuel was suspected because it could cause carbon to build up near the pistons, causing cylinders to stick open and oil to blow into the engines, ruining them, Green said. The city was still checking to see if it would be possible to fix some engines rather than replace them all, he said. But by Wednesday afternoon, staff had decided that since the cars were so new, they should have new engines, Green said.
Green said five of the West Palm engines have already been replaced, and 10 more will be replaced by next week, completing work on the initial 15 vehicles. If the other 21 need changing, that could take two or three more weeks, he said.
Meanwhile, cars that were take-home vehicles are being kept in use, sometimes for three shifts in a row, to have sufficient cruisers for patrols.