More Than 76,000 Leaking
Underground Fuel Tanks Go Unseen

WASHINGTON DC, May 9, 2002 (ENS), More than 76,000 leaking underground storage tanks across the country are polluting the nation's groundwater, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can do little to solve the problem.

The leaks could be eliminated if Congress and the EPA would improve inspections and provide the necessary authority to bring tank owners into compliance with existing regulations, according to a top Congressional watchdog.

In testimony given Wednesday before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, John Stephenson, director of natural resources and environment of the General Accounting Office, provided evidence to show that more clout and funding from Congress could bring states into compliance with law.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) is the investigative branch of the U.S. Congress. Independent and nonpartisan, it studies how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.

Recent studies have shown that underground tanks across the country are leaking hazardous substances, Stephenson told the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, Risk and Waste Management.

In fiscal year 2000, more than 14,500 leaks or releases from regulated tanks were reported.

A leaky underground storage tank is unearthed. (Photos courtesy EPA)

As an example, Stephenson told the lawmakers of a school in Roselawn, Indiana, that discovered the children had been using and drinking water with 10 times the EPA's recommended safe limit of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

MTBE, an oxygenate added to fuel for reducing emissions and raising octane, has been found in drinking water sources due to leaks in underground storage tanks. MTBE poses health risks including damage to kidneys, livers and, in some cases even cancer, Stephenson testified.

A two year GAO sponsored survey determined that approximately 1.5 million tanks have been permanently closed since the EPA Underground Storage Tank (UST) program was created in 1984. This left about 693,000 tanks subject to UST requirements and left the states' programs to deal with these tanks.

The EPA has provided funding, about $187,000 per state, for dealing with the problem tanks, Stephenson said. The EPA retains authority for a small number of tanks mostly on Indian lands.

In addition, the Congress created a trust fund in 1986 to help EPA and the states cover tank cleanup costs that owners and operators could not afford or were reluctant to pay. The fund is replenished partly through a $.001/gallon tax on gasoline and other fuels. At the end of fiscal year 2001, the fund had a balance of about $1.7 billion.

Based on the states' responses to the GAO survey, the agency estimated that about 89 percent of the tanks had the required protective equipment installed. But more than 200,000 tanks were not being operated or maintained properly, increasing the chance of leaks.

Nineteen states reported frequent problems with corrosion prevention equipment, and 15 states reported that leak detection equipment was frequently turned off or improperly maintained. Of the remaining 76,000 tanks that had not been retrofitted with the required equipment, EPA and the states speculated that the tanks were probably inactive and empty.

Leakage apparent once the tank is revealed.

Even though the tanks may have leaked in the past, the contamination, which poses health risks, is often not discovered until the tank is dug up for removal. Most states and the EPA do not know if all inactive tanks are empty because those tanks have not been inspected. Over half of the states do not inspect all of their tanks frequently enough to meet the minimum EPA rate, which is at least one inspection every three years.

The ability to block deliveries has proven to be one of the most effective tools for ensuring compliance with program requirements, but 27 states lack the authority to prohibit fuel deliveries to stations with problem tanks.

"EPA believes, and we agree," said Stephenson, "that the law governing the tank program does not give the agency clear authority to regulate fuel suppliers and therefore prohibit their deliveries."

State agencies with insufficient money, staff or authority must rely instead on issuing citations and fines.

>From the survey it is apparent that few government agencies know the status of underground tanks located in their jurisdiction, Stephenson told the subcommittee. Fourteen states reported some tank leaks, 17 said their tanks never leaked and 20 states did not know if leaks occurred.

The EPA and some localities have studies underway to obtain better data on leaks from upgraded tanks. The EPA is also considering whether it needs to set new tank requirements, such as double-walled tanks, to prevent further leaks.

Stephenson said the statistics show that improved inspection, an expanded staff and broader authority to enforce regulations are the keys to remediation of the health hazards posed by the tanks.

To address these problems, the GAO report recommends that the EPA should work with the states to determine training needs and ways to fill them. More specifically, there is a strong need to address the estimated 76,000 tanks that have not yet been upgraded, closed, or removed as required.

The report contains recommendations to the EPA and suggestions to the Congress on ways to promote better inspections and enforcement. Resource shortfalls can be overcome by expanding the use of the $1.7 billion tank cleanup trust fund to also cover additional inspection and enforcement activities, Stephenson explained.

Empty or inactive tanks appear to pose less risk than leaky tanks still in use. But even given a lower priority, the inactive noncompliant tanks can cover up contamination from earlier leaks. It is not until those tanks are removed that contaminated soil is discovered, because while a tank is in place there is no reliable method for testing the earth surrounding it.

Some states reported operators turning off leak detection equipment, particularly at tanks owned by small, independent businesses, such as cab companies and local governments. The states attributed these problems to a lack of training for tank owners, operators, and inspectors, Stephenson told the subcommittee. Smaller businesses and local governments find it more difficult to afford adequate training, especially given the high turnover rates among tank staff, he said.

Almost all the states reported a need for additional resources to keep their own inspectors and program staff trained. Forty-one states requested additional technical assistance from the federal government to provide such training.

The EPA is in the process of implementing its compliance improvement initiative, which involves actions such as setting the targets and providing incentives to tank owners, but it is too early to gauge the impact of the agency's efforts on compliance rates.

Excavated tanks are hauled away for disposal

According to EPA's program managers, only physical inspections can confirm whether tanks have been upgraded and are being properly operated and maintained. But most states do not meet the EPA's recommendation to inspect all tanks every three years nor do they have the enforcement tools needed to identify and correct problems.

Only 19 states physically inspect all of their tanks even at the minimum rate that EPA considers necessary for effective tank monitoring. Ten states inspect all tanks, but less frequently.

The remaining 22 states do not inspect all tanks, but instead generally target inspections to potentially problematic tanks, such as those close to drinking water sources.

Under current staffing levels inspectors in 11 states would each have to visit more than 300 facilities a year to cover all tanks at least once every three years. But EPA officials estimate that a qualified inspector can visit at most 200 facilities a year. Because most states use their own employees to conduct inspections, state legislatures would need to provide them with additional hiring authority and the funding to hire more inspectors.

Officials in 40 states said that they would support a federal mandate requiring states to periodically inspect all tanks. Such a mandate would provide them with the needed leverage to convince their state legislatures to fund an adequate inspection staff, they told the GAO.


Back to