Officials push for gas station emergency systems

Dozens of people wait in line at the Dozens of people wait in line at the Mobil gas station on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream. (Nov. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Steven Sunshine

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A push from state, county and local officials would require emergency power systems for at least some gas stations to help prevent a repeat of the gasoline shortage after superstorm Sandy.

Hempstead on Jan. 22 became the first Long Island town since Sandy to pass a law requiring larger gas stations -- those pumping more than 100,000 gallons a month -- to install standby generators so pumps can keep working in a power failure. Babylon has had a rule on the books since 2008 mandating that new and renovated stations accommodate portable generators.

At least three villages -- Farmingdale, Rockville Centre, and Lynbrook -- are considering alternative-power measures for gas stations, as are Suffolk and Nassau county legislators, state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

"We've been told over and over again by FEMA and by our emergency service personnel that we have to depend on ourselves in the first few days of a natural disaster," said Suffolk Legis. Steve Stern (D-Huntington), who proposes that stations be pre-wired so portable generators can be readily connected. "In the first couple of days after Sandy, they had gas right beneath their feet, but they didn't have the ability to pump it."

Hurricane-prone Florida and Louisiana have adopted emergency-power requirements for gas stations.

Owners: Who'll pay?

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Most New York station operators are opposed to any government effort to force businesses to buy and install backup generators without the government picking up some of the costs, said Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops, which represents 3,000 members statewide. A commercial-grade generator that could operate gas pumps, refrigerator units and computer systems costs $20,000 to $40,000, he said. That does not include maintenance expenses.

"We'll be opposing any attempt to mandate it," said Bombardiere.

His members are also opposed to proposals like the ones introduced by Stern and Assemb. Steve Engelbright (D-Setauket) mandating stations be prewired for portable generators, Bombardiere said.

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When Sandy knocked out power throughout the region on Oct. 29 -- blackouts that lasted more than two weeks in some places -- many stations had gas in underground storage tanks, but no electricity to pump it. Demand quickly outstripped supply, forcing customers to wait for hours in long lines at stations that were still operating.

Two state commissions Cuomo created to help prepare for future disasters recommended requiring certain stations to have backup generators. Cuomo embraced the idea in his State of the State address earlier this month.

"We must ensure that gas stations in strategic locations are required to have backup power capacity because it is essential to maintaining the ability to distribute fuel during a power outage," Cuomo said.

Cuomo has not yet provided a detailed plan, including how the costs would be covered, nor did he define "strategic locations." The panelists on his commissions identified them as stations along evacuation routes or those that serve as a hub for some communities.

Engelbright would require rewiring stations so portable generators can be connected. That option, costing $5,000 to $12,000, is cheaper than installing permanent backup generators. The proposal includes a $2,500 business tax credit to help defray the cost.

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Florida requires service stations along evacuation routes or near interstate highways to have appropriate wiring and be equipped to switch to generator-based power. Louisiana adopted a similar law, but it covers only new or rebuilt service stations.

No generator requests

A survey of Long Island's 13 towns and a sampling of villages found no post-Sandy permit requests to install generators. However, two station owners told Newsday they had plans for them.

Cary Wolf, whose Jericho-based company owns several stations, is awaiting delivery of a 10-kilowatt, portable gasoline-powered generator for his Port Washington location.

"We're going to experiment with it," he said. "If this thing works, I can certainly afford to have a few of these around."

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Robert Del Gadio, owner of stations in Wantagh and Commack, said he plans to install a backup generator at the Wantagh location so he can keep selling gas if the power goes out. "It makes good business sense to have it," he said.

"Everybody is against it because no one wants to spend money. They want to spend everybody else's money," Del Gadio said.

With Aisha al-Muslim, Bill Bleyer, Denise M. Bonilla, Sophia Chang, Scott Eidler, Mitchell Freedman, Lauren R. Harrison, Tom Incantalupo, Mackenzie Issler, Carl MacGowan and Emily Ngo

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