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Stores fined for gas prices after Katrina

| Sunday, April 16, 2006

HARRISBURG - Two gasoline retailers will pay fines for steep hikes at the pumps after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last summer, state officials said.

Turkey Hill Minit Markets has agreed to pay $6,000 for price bumps at stores in Mountain Top in Luzerne County and Shillington in Bucks County, while the Valley General Store in Petersburg in Huntingdon County will pay $1,000 for its increases, according to the state Attorney General's office.

On Sept. 1, three days after Katrina hit, the Valley General Store got a fuel delivery, paying about $3.35 per gallon.

But the store traded unfairly because the markup to $3.99 put its pumps 80 cents higher than the average price in the surrounding area, court papers state.

At the Mountaintop Turkey Hill, regular gas went up 30 cents to $3.19 Sept. 2. In Shillington, the price shot up 56 cents to $2.99, or 23 percent, over three days.

In that time, the wholesale cost did not change, according to court documents.

By signing the settlement, Turkey Hill does not admit gouging, said spokeswoman Erin Dimitriou Smith.

"We were just assuring our customers we would continue to provide them fairly and competitively priced gas," she said.

A message left by The Associated Press for the owner of the Valley General Store was not returned immediately.

The Attorney General's Office received nearly 1,000 complaints of price gouging after the hurricane hit Aug. 29, and investigators looked into about 500 of the tips, said spokeswoman Barbara Petito.

More charges could come, she said.

Petito said the law defines gouging as raising the price by a "unconscionable amount," but it doesn't define that term.

Two bills in the Legislature would set specific limits on price hikes on gasoline and all services or products sold during and for the month after the governor declares a disaster.

A House bill would define price gouging as more than 15 percent above the price the business charged in the week before the disaster. A Senate bill sets the limit at 20 percent.

Both would make exceptions if wholesale prices rose.

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