States Cannot Stop Fuel Deliveries to Leaky Storage Tanks

WASHINGTON, DC, Novembeer 1, 2001 (ENS) - In 27 states, owners of underground storage tanks can continue to accept fuel deliveries even if the tanks are leaking in violation of federal environmental law, according to the director of natural resources and environment for the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm.

These states told GAO officials that they do not believe they have the authority to regulate fuel suppliers to make them stop their deliveries to gas stations whose fuel tanks might be leaking underground.

The persistent problem with leaking underground fuel tanks was outlined for legislators by the GAO's John Stephenson, in testimony today before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

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

"Almost all of the states said they need additional enforcement resources and 27 need additional authority," said Stephenson. "Many states are not inspecting all of their tanks to make sure that they do not leak, nor can they prohibit fuel from being delivered to problem tanks."

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Workers remove a leaky underground storage tank to be trucked away for disposal. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Members of both an expert panel and an industry group, which the EPA convened to help it assess the tank program, saw the need for states to have more resources and more uniform and consistent enforcement across states, including the authority to prohibit fuel deliveries. They noted that the fear of being shut down would provide owners and operators a greater incentive to comply with federal requirements.

The General Accounting Office conducted a survey of all 50 states and the District of Columbia to determine whether tanks are complying with program requirements, how the EPA and the states are inspecting tanks and enforcing the requirements, and whether upgraded tanks still leak.

Stephenson was testifying at a subcommittee hearing into issues concerning the use of the gasoline oxygenate methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in reformulated gasoline.

The addition of MTBE to gasoline imposed on polluted urban areas by the federal Clean Air Act has been found to be a mixed blessing. The fuel burns cleaner keeping the air clearer, but if MTBE leaks from a storage tank into the surrounding soil or groundwater it can poison area drinking water.

Stephenson told the sub-committee that MTBE "can pose health risks ranging from nausea to kidney or liver damage or even cancer."

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Groundwater fills the hole excavated to remove a leaky underground storage tank. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"Indeed, he warned, "leaks of MTBE - a fuel additive for reducing emissions and raising octane, but also a suspected carcinogen - have been found in drinking water sources and pose a very serious health risk and costly cleanup burden."

In 1984, the Congress created the Underground Storage Tank program to protect the public from potential leaks from the then more than two million tanks located across the nation, mostly at gas stations.

Under the program, the EPA required tank owners to install new leak detection equipment by the end of 1993 and new spill, overfill, and corrosion prevention equipment by the end of 1998. If these conditions were not met, owners had to close or remove their tanks.

In general, the EPA has granted states the authority to implement the program with agency oversight and monitoring, or states operate their own program under state law with limited EPA oversight. EPA has provided states funding, about $187,000 per state, for doing so, Stephenson said.

Congress created a trust fund in 1986 to help the EPA and the states cover tank cleanup costs that owners and operators could not afford or were reluctant to pay, Stephenson reminded the lawmakers. The fund is replenished partly through a $.001/gallon tax on gasoline and other fuels. At the end of fiscal year 2000, the fund had a balance of about $1.5 billion.

Stephenson recommended that the uses to which the $1.5 billion could be put should be expanded to include inspection and enforcement.

Based on its survey, the GAO estimates that nearly 617,000, or about 89 percent of the approximately 693,000 regulated tanks, had been upgraded with the federally required equipment by the end of fiscal year 2000.

EPA data shows that about 70 percent of the total number of tanks that its regions regulate on tribal lands had also been upgraded.

"With regard to the approximately 76,000 tanks that we estimated have not been upgraded, closed, or removed as required, 17 states and the three EPA regions we visited reported that they believed that most of these tanks were either empty or inactive," Stephenson said. Another five states reported that at least half of their non-upgraded tanks were still in use.

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Removing a leaky tank (Photo courtesy EPA)
In closing, he said flatly that the states and the EPA "cannot ensure that all regulated tanks have the required equipment to prevent health risks from fuel leaks, spills, and overfills or that tanks are safely operated and maintained."

Stephenson recommends that Congress work with the states to address the remaining non-upgraded tanks, prioritizing those that pose the greatest risk.

Better training support, minimum frequency for physical inspection of tanks and more funding for inspection and enforcement are what is needed, Stephenson said.

"The 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 estimates that a qualified inspector can only visit at most 200 facilities a year," Stephenson disclosed.

Officials in 40 states told the GAO that they would support a federal mandate requiring states to periodically inspect all tanks, in part because they expect that such a mandate would provide them needed leverage to obtain the requisite inspection staff and funding from their state legislatures.