At least 70 Baltimore police patrol cars were sidelined because of an apparent problem at the city fuel pump over the weekend.
Officials said the cars, which represent roughly a third of the Police Department's patrol strength at any given time, broke down because of problems with the fuel. Tests were being conducted to determine the precise problem, but officials say they were looking into whether the gas station's unleaded tank might have been filled with diesel fuel.
Khalil Zaied, director of general services, said the cars first began sputtering and stalling out Sunday afternoon, and by 5 p.m. the city realized it had a larger problem on its hands and began diverting vehicles from the 24-hour, city-run Fallsway substation.
Police said operations were strained but not significantly affected, with the department temporarily doubling up officers in working patrol cars as they activated administrative vehicles to handle calls. Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman, said more than 200 police cars filled up at the pump this weekend during the "period of contamination."
"For now, we can make do with what we have," Guglielmi said. "We're borrowing from Peter and Paul to make sure patrol is not affected."
The breakdown comes at a particularly bad time for the city as it looks to trim costs and find millions in budget savings. Earlier this month the Police Department looked to its fleet of vehicles to try to close its budget gap, reducing the number of take-home cars available to mid-level commanders.
Zaied said only police cars had been affected, though he said that reports of damaged vehicles continued to trickle in Monday and that other agencies might have been affected. He could not immediately provide a cost estimate.
The city spends $10 million per year on fuel, and the Fallsway substation is replenished three times a week, Zaied said.
Avi Amoyal, the owner of Roland Falls Service, a North Baltimore auto repair and sales business, said that putting diesel fuel in a regular-gas engine "contaminates the hell out of it."
"Everything has to be flushed and drained," said Amoyal. "You've got to drain the gas from the gas tanks, flush the fuel injection, change the fuel filter and, if they've started the car, they might have ruined the fuel injectors."
If the fuel injectors - one for each cylinder - have to be replaced, the whole job could cost $1,500 to $2,000 or more per car, Amoyal said, depending on what kind of injectors are required, and their location within the engine bay.
Amoyal could not explain how someone might have put the wrong fuel into the city depot's gas tanks, since Maryland law dictates that storage tanks for different kinds of fuel be clearly labeled in different colors.
But such a mix-up has occurred in recent years at commercial gas stations in Santa Fe, N.M., western Michigan, and Auburndale, Fla., according to news reports.
Charles Krysiak, chief of the city's fleet management, said the department could recall only one similar instance when diesel was inadvertently poured into the wrong tank. But he said the mistake was caught by employees. In other rare instances, city workers themselves have gone to the wrong tank to fill up their vehicles.
The Police Department has 1,200 vehicles in its fleet, including patrol cars, unmarked cars, and vans or "wagons" for transporting suspects. Each of the department's nine patrol districts typically has about 20 patrol cars in service to respond to calls, officers say, meaning roughly a third of the vehicles on the street encountered problems.
When a cruiser goes down, police turn to a pool of loaners. Those cars, along with others earmarked for neighborhood services and administrative functions, were moved into the complement of patrol cars, Guglielmi said.
By mid-afternoon Monday, about 15 of the cars had already been repaired and put back on the streets, work that Zaied said was done in-house.
Baltimore Sun reporter Nick Madigan contributed to this article.