By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the State Office of Emergency Management asked Baker County Emergency Services director Mark Bennett to log complaints of gasoline price spikes throughout the county.
Since that day, Bennett said, hes heard an earful.
The FBI is chasing the wrong terrorists! one man complained.
How am I going to drive my Lincoln Continental? another caller asked.
In all, Bennett said hes heard from more than 80 county residents. Some callers, he said, were screaming at us to do something.
Others merely reported what price theyd just paid at the pump, compared with what theyd paid during their previous fill-up.
But despite isolated reports of brief price spikes up to $4.50 per gallon in some Plains states, Baker County gasoline station owners kept their increases down to between 10 and 11 cents and the increase was temporary. Owners of four stations along the Campbell Street corridor kept prices up just a day or two, then brought them right back to the price level right before the attack around $1.75 per gallon.
Baker Truck Corral general manager J.B. Matthiesen said that his supplier upped his price last Wednesday, based in part on the fear that a fuel depot in Louisiana that supplies much of the West might be closed.
But when there were no further consequences following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, their prices went right back down, Matthiesen said, and theyve stayed down since.
But price spikes after last weeks attack were much more pronounced in other areas of the state, said Kristen Grainger, Attorney General Hardy Myers executive assistant.
On Monday, Myers issued demand letters to 36 gas stations, mostly in coastal and central Oregon, Grainger said, after the attorney generals office had received more than 1,000 calls from consumers complaining about high prices.
One gas station employee told a customer that the military had put a hold on 50 percent of the nations gas supply in anticipation of war, Grainger said. Not only is that not true, its a violation of the states trade practices law, she said.
The demand letters from Myers office require station owners to explain why they charged the prices they did following the attack, as well as what they paid for the fuel and what they charged their customers.
We expected scams and fraud in the wake of the attack, Grainger said. But we didnt expect this kind of increase in gas prices.
Profiteering on the misery of others is unconscionable, Myers said in a prepared release. Dealers charging excessive and unjustified prices for gasoline with consumers having little choice but to purchase will not be tolerated.
Myers said that the calls to his hotline 877/877-9392 included reports of gas prices increasing hourly, with gains of up to 25 cents per gallon.
That kind of complaint has been almost nonexistent in Baker County, Bennett said. One woman did complain that a station attendant enforced an increase of about 15 cents per gallon while she was waiting in line to fill up. Bennett said he would investigate when she produces the receipt.
Since last weeks attack, Matthiesen notes that his diesel fuel business has not suffered much. But whats alarming is that other bread-and-butter aspects of his business gasoline and the truck stops restaurant both are down the past week.
People are concerned about going out and doing things, he said, and thats the message he plans to take later this week to a meeting of the Western Truck Stop Organization in Portland.
Im sure theyll feel more comfortable down the road, but theyve slowed down for the time being.