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Sunday, January 7, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vanishing Gas Pumps -- Stations Are Getting Fewer And Larger - And Snack Foods Are Replacing Bays

The energy crisis of 1974 may seem like a minor irritation the next time there's a gas crunch and cars are lined up around the block and onto the freeway to get to the pump.

Reasons:

-- More than half the gas stations operating in Seattle in 1974 have gone out of business.

-- Those that remain must meet stringent new federal requirements for costly no-leak tanks. They also must have $1 million in insurance by Oct. 26 to cover the cleanup of possible leaks, which typically run $100,000 to $300,000 each. Big oil companies can afford to keep profitable stations open; many independents won't be able to come up with the money to upgrade tanks or buy insurance.

-- At least one major oil company, Unocal, plans to eliminate company-owned stations in Washington state that are not on the Interstate 90 or Interstate 5 corridors.

Although other companies have not made similar announcements, the trend here and elsewhere in the country is to get rid of unprofitable service stations.

The loss is being felt in neighborhoods, in big cities and small towns. It is posing real hardships on the state's far-flung rural communities.

By the end of this year, whole counties in Eastern Washington could be down to one service station, said Tim Hamilton of the Olympia-based Automotive United Trades Organization (AUTO), which represents 1,815 independent service-station owners in Washington state. There are an estimated 3,000 service stations in the state.

Hamilton warns that if the state doesn't find a way to help independent dealers find insurance, 60 percent of the state's gas stations could close by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly hard for some motorists to find a gas station when they need it.

State Rep. Eugene Prince, whose hometown of Thornton in Whitman County lost its only station years ago, said the station he patronizes in Washtucna, 30 miles away in Adams County, may have to close because the owners cannot afford new leak-proof tanks in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency restrictions.

``I could then drive to Lacrosse (Whitman County), which is 35 miles away and has a single station, but I understand that station may have to close too,'' Prince said.

Prince said he has written to U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley of Spokane, asking that he promote legislation to permit service-station operators in remote areas to meet EPA standards by substituting cheaper concrete vaults for expensive leak-proof tanks.

``The pains are just starting,'' Prince said. ``Everybody means well when they write these laws, but they don't realize the problems. Since small tanks are exempt from EPA restrictions, I expect people over here to put 300-gallon tanks in the ground, out next to the garage. Then, instead of one leak at a service station, you've got the potential for a whole lot of leaks and fires.''

Oil companies are candid about the likelihood that many independent stations won't be around much longer. They say the new EPA standards force them to assess the profitability of company-owned stations, too, and decide which ones to upgrade. The ones that aren't profitable will go.

There are some sad stories in the gas-station business these days.

Some longtime operators, such as Jack Atkins of Kent - who ``lost everything'' when his Chevron station was bulldozed two years ago - are bitter toward the big oil companies.

Others, such as Ed Weiss of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, spent all their money buying their buildings and land and say they cannot afford to pay another $150,000 or so to upgrade their tanks, ``and no bank is going to insure me for $1 million.''

And there is a growing uneasiness among motorists, who find it harder to find a gas station when the gauge on the dashboard edges toward empty.

In the words of Don Gunnis, regional director for Chevron, the days of a service station on all four corners are long gone. ``Service'' also has been stricken from the name of many stations.

Most of those new stations specialize in ``potato chips and condoms,'' said Atkins, who sold Chevron products and serviced automobiles for 38 years before his station was bulldozed two years ago against his wishes.

``Chevron didn't want any

competition for its new (company-owned) station closer to the mouth of the stream (Highway 18), and I had to go,'' said Atkins, who took Chevron to court and lost. His station ``supported five families. For a time, after I lost the station, I worked as a substitute custodian for the school district. At 56, it's hard to find a job.''

Atkins, who said Standard Oil showed no loyalty to station operators who had served the company faithfully over the years, blamed the advent of the computer and a callous upper management.

Weiss, who has sold Texaco products from Ed's Lakeside Service & Towing in Lake Stevens for more than 15 years, said that if he can't install new tanks or buy insurance, the Texaco jobber cannot deliver gas to him, by law.

``And unless I can pump a little gas, I can't attract customers to my service bays, which are my main business.''

There has been a steady decline in the number of gas stations in the past 40 years. In downtown Seattle, a station seems to go out of business every few weeks. Seattle's 1951 city directory listed 630 gas stations. The 1987-88 directory listed 170.

Hamilton, who lobbies on behalf of AUTO, thinks the major oil companies would like to control all the stations in the state ``and the EPA regulations may be the thing that enables them to do it.''

``The public should be concerned,'' Hamilton said. ``You saw it with the Exxon spill in Alaska. All the companies, not just Exxon, used that as an excuse to immediately escalate the price of gas.

``If we went into a shortage now, Seattle would stop dead in its tracks. The disruption in traffic might be equivalent to the San Francisco earthquake. We've got about one-third to one-half the stations we had in the early '70s, and you remember those lines.

``Well now, you've got a lot more people and fewer stations, and more and more of those stations that remain are just off the freeways. Sure, the new stations have a lot more pumps. But you're still looking at total gridlock. People will wake up one morning and say, `How did this happen?' ''

Hamilton and some disgruntled old-time service-station operators say the trend toward convenience stores rather than service-station bays also is being orchestrated by the big oil companies.

``They need less skilled employees to sit at a counter, run your plastic card through a machine and sell you a six-pack than they do to balance your wheels, fix a flat or install a new thermostat,'' Hamilton said.

``The oil companies have discovered you can sell a lot more beer than tires out of a 10-by-10 room.''

Bill Victory of Seattle, who headed the Evergreen Service Station Association during the big gas shortage of 1974 and still has a stake in several stations, is now a member of AUTO.

Victory agrees with Hamilton that the consumer is going to wind up paying more at the pump for less service ``because the major oil companies are going to wind up controlling exactly where you get your gasoline.''

Gone are the days when there were dozens of brand-name service stations, with such once-familiar signs as Enco, Phillips, Rocket, Hancock, Time, Signal, Flying A, Eagle, Clipper, Veltex and American.

``There are only a few players left in the game,'' Victory said. ``One of them turns left, and they all turn left. They all run in the same pack and go the same direction.''

Victory also decries the giant station with many pumps ``and no restroom for your kids when you're on a long trip.''

But he doesn't think a major gas shortage, ``which is bound to come sooner or later,'' will create quite the traffic problems forecast by Hamilton.

``The lines will be tremendous, I agree,'' he said. ``But those new stations have enough pumps to take care of a lot of customers. They're self-service, and they can really put people through there.

``Market forces will determine what happens. If everybody and his uncle puts in a Twinkie store, then somebody is going to say, `Hey, if I put in tire repair, I'll get more business.' ''

But there will be no chance of surviving in the fiercely competitive days ahead unless a little mom-and-pop station can pump at least 50,000 gallons a month, Victory said.

Even as gas stations close all around town, new ones are going in - at places the oil companies deem profitable.

Said Gunnis, the Puget Sound area Chevron spokesman: ``We're not opposed to service bays when we think a dealer can generate sufficient revenue to justify them. But it takes a lot of property for service bays, so you need high volume at the pump.

``Twenty years ago, a station might do 30,000 gallons a month and have service bays. Today, that station might have to do 300,000 gallons a month to justify the service bays.''

The oil company, Gunnis said, sometimes is blamed for closures it tried to halt. ``We fought tooth and nail'' to prevent the recent closure of a busy Chevron station just off I-5 on Denny Way in Seattle, Gunnis said, ``but we didn't own the land, and the property owner could do with it what he wanted.''

Steve Hanson, retail manager for Texaco's marketing division, based in Kirkland, said Texaco has spent as much as $260,000 to install new fiberglass tanks to meet EPA requirements.

``It's a $135,000 to $140,000 investment, at a minimum, to put in all-fiberglass tanks,'' Hanson said. ``There's not much money in the gas business if you are a mom-and-pop store, pumping maybe 40,000 gallons a month. You may figure it's worth it to put in a steel tank, wrapped in fiberglass, for $80,000. But that's an awfully big investment, and many won't be able to make it.''

Dave Huson has run a Chevron station on Mercer Island, away from I-90, for 10 years. He has invested $75,000 to $80,000 in new tanks, owns his own building and leases the ground.

He expects to continue running service bays.

``I've got a hat to wear to Chevron meetings,'' he said. ``It reads: `Last Chance Garage.'

``The way they're tearing down service stations and turning them into grocery chains, I figure I might be the last garage around.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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