Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tighter Regulations for USTs

On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) announced that they are strengthening the federal underground storage tank (UST) requirements. This is important because leaking underground storage tanks is the major source of groundwater contamination nationwide. Currently, there are approximately 569,000 active USTs in the U.S. that are regulated under UST regulations. The announced changes will expand the number of regulated tanks by eliminating some exemptions and deferrals. Improved equipment and leak detection will further prevent and detect releases from USTs protecting our precious groundwater supplies.

States and territories primarily implement the UST program- 38 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have approved state programs the other 12 states implement the federal program. Many states already have some of these new requirements in place, but not all. Virginia began a program to register, regulate and cleanup USTs and their contamination in 1989 in compliance with the 1988 EPA regulations. The Virginia program has spent more than $67 million to cleanup contamination from USTs and had protective requirements to reduce the future contamination, but does not require secondary containment on all tanks and piping systems.

The EPA’s action will strengthen existing UST standards nationwide and help ensure a consistent level of higher standards on all USTs in the U.S. The new regulations will tighten the EPA’s original 1988 UST regulations by requiring secondary containment on tanks and piping systems, and focusing on properly operating and maintaining existing UST systems.

The revised requirements include:
  • requiring secondary containment requirements for new and replaced tanks and piping;
  • adding operator training requirements;
  • adding periodic operation and maintenance requirements for UST systems;
  • eliminating deferrals for emergency generator tanks, airport hydrant systems, and field-constructed tanks;
  • requiring new release prevention technologies and leak detection alarms.
You probably don’t remember, but leaking underground storage tanks were a huge problem in the 1980’s. By the 1980’s there were over 2 million fuel and chemical storage tanks that were buried underground. Many of those tanks had been in the ground for decades as gas stations covered the country. After World War II it became common practice to bury fuel tanks in the ground. No one thought about what would happen over time when these tanks rusted and began to leak creating a slow and steady source of contamination. By the 1980’s many of these tanks were leaking and contaminating soil and groundwater. To address the threat to groundwater from leaking underground storage tanks, Congress added Subtitle I to the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) and in 1986 created the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Trust Fund that is financed by a 0.1 cent federal tax on each gallon of gas sold.

The trust fund was created to:
  • Enforce cleanups by recalcitrant parties
  • Pay for cleanups at sites where the owner or operator is unknown, unwilling, or unable to respond, or which require emergency action because drinking water supplies are threatened. 
The tax has generated far more money than has been used in the program. Since 2012 $3.4 billion of the LUST Trust Fund was transferred to the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund. In addition to the federal cleanup funds, 38 states have UST cleanup funds (funded by the tax) which pay for most UST cleanups and are separate from the federal LUST Trust Fund; collectively states raised and spent more than $1 billion annually on LUST cleanups.

Over the years the states have done a good job of addressing the historic backlog of UST problems. With the help of the various Trust Funds more than 1.8 million USTs have been properly closed, 525,095 fuel releases have been discovered of those 452,847 have been cleaned up and completed. However, it is time to tighten the UST regulations and try and cleanup the 72,248 cleanups have not yet been finished.

Over time all tanks and piping systems will grow old and fail. It is necessary to have a secondary containment system to capture the fuel when it leaks out of the tank or pipe, in addition to an alarm system to notify operators of the leak before the secondary system fails. Inspections and maintenance are necessary to ensure that systems are working properly and in good condition and workers are not just silencing alarms and ignoring problems.

Now that EPA has tightened the UST regulations, they need to think about regulations for above ground tanks (ASTs). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate most aboveground fuel storage tanks and there are no national standards for secondary containment and spill prevention. In addition, there are no regulations that limit the maximum life that a tank can continue to be used. This endangers our rivers, watershed and groundwater.

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