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#229 - Leaking Underground Storage Tanks, 16-Apr-1991

The U.S. uses about 16 million barrels of oil and oil byproducts, such
as gasoline, each day (or 245 billion gallons per year). Much of this
material is stored in tanks at some time during transport from source
to point of use. Many of the storage tanks are underground. Many are

There are some six million tanks in the U.S. for storing petroleum,
petroleum by-products, and petroleum-related chemicals, many of which
are toxic and carcinogenic. Of these, two million are large commercial
tanks used by gasoline stations, airports, and refineries; the
remainder are small tanks, such as home heating fuel tanks. No one
knows the exact number, but U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
estimates that, of the nation's two million commercial tanks, some
300,000 to 500,000 are leaking. That is, 15% to 25% of the nation's
large tanks are leaking, EPA believes.

Some tanks have been leaking for a long time and have spilled large
puddles of oil underground. A puddle beneath a Mobil Oil tank in the
Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, NY, contains 17 million gallons of oil.
(See RHWN #159.) The Tosco Corporation owns a tank near San Francisco
Bay with a 28 million-gallon puddle of oil beneath it. The largest
known oil spill beneath a tank is at Chevron Corporation's El Segundo,
CA, facility--a puddle comprising 200 million gallons of oil.

To get these oil spills into perspective, it helps to know that the
Exxon Valdez spill released 11 million gallons, so the Mobil puddle in
Brooklyn is 50% larger than the Valdez spill. The Tosco Corp's spill
contains more than 2.5 times as much oil as the Valdez spill, and
Chevron's El Segundo spill is 18 times larger than the Valdez spill. It
is also worth noting that this Chevron spill is more than 3 times as
large as the 64 million gallon release in the Persian Gulf in February,
1991, which caused President Bush to call Saddam Hussein an "eco

(This past weekend, Tom Betteg, former executive producer of the CBS
Evening News with Dan Rather, said at a conference that CBS had
evidence that allied bombing, not an intentional release by Iraqi
forces, was responsible for the 64-million gallon release in the
Persian Gulf; however, Mr. Betteg said CBS has been unable to find
independent data with which to corroborate or refute this information,
so CBS was unable to air the story. "We may never learn the truth about
this," Mr. Betteg said.)

Underground tanks (or large above-ground tanks partly buried in the
ground) have an expected lifetime of 20 to 40 years. "After that they
don't have anywhere to go but to corrode," says Helga Butler, chief of
planning and communications for the EPA's Office of Underground Storage
Tanks. [NY TIMES July 29, 1990, pg. E4.] (Just as all landfills must
eventually leak, all storage tanks must eventually leak. The second law
of thermodynamics--a fundamental law of physics--guarantees that all
physical structures spontaneously become more disordered as time
passes. "Disorder" in a tank or a landfill eventually spells leakage.
Humans, of course, by applying energy to a situation, can temporarily
reverse the disorder, for example, by welding a patch over a hole in a
tank; nevertheless, left alone, any tank will slowly degrade and then

Last year EPA issued new regulations requiring underground tanks to be
made of non-corrosive material (such as fiber glass, which is likely to
degrade more slowly than some metals). New tanks must also be equipped
with leak detector systems. (Such systems will tell you that the horse
has left the barn, so it's time to shut the door.) Finally, each owner
of a commercial underground tank must carry at least $1 million in
liability insurance--a requirement that has driven many gasoline
stations out of business.

Even with the new regulations, EPA predicts that 62,000 private water
wells and 4,700 public water wells have been or will be contaminated by
underground leaks.

Cleanup of underground contamination is very expensive and is not
satisfactory. Water contaminated with petroleum and its byproducts
cannot be cleaned up to drinking water standards, EPA says. EPA
estimates that cleanup from petroleum spilled underground could cost
upwards of $32 billion, but the agency admits that even with
expenditures of this size, cleanup will only be partially successful.
In proposing underground storage tank regulations in 1987, EPA admitted
cleanup doesn't really work: "EPA has found no corrective action
technology capable of bringing water quality back to national [drinking
water] standards...." [FEDERAL REGISTER, April 17, 1987, pg. 12674.]

In East Setauket, Long Island, a small hole in an underground pipe
owned by Northville Industries has allowed over a million gallons of
gasoline to spill into the groundwater over the years. The gasoline is
floating on Long Island's sole source of drinking water; the
underground puddle of gasoline today covers 30 acres and, in some
places, is over seven feet deep. Since 1987, Northville has spent $10
million on cleanup and is expected to spend millions more.

States try to hold the polluter liable, but the federal government has
imposed a 0.1 cent per gallon tax on gasoline to create a $500 million
fund to pay for cleanups where the responsible party has disappeared or
has gone bankrupt.

States with the worst problem are those where groundwater lies close to
the surface and where groundwater provides drinking water for a large
proportion of the populace. Florida seems to be hardest hit; there
groundwater is often within a foot of the surface and 90% of the
population drinks groundwater. Florida's worst problem yet discovered:
During the past five years, 340,000 gallons of oil have been pumped
from beneath the tarmac at Miami airport.

Get: Lois Epstein, Citizen Action: AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION [A CITIZENS'
Environmental Defense Fund [EDF, 1616 P St., NW, Suite 150, Washington,
DC 20036; phone (202) 387-3500], December, 1990. $2.50. This good
pamphlet shows how EPA has really failed to adequately address the
problem of underground tanks. It contains several workable suggestions
for getting citizens involved in solving the underground tank problem.

You may also want to get Ms. Epstein's earlier booklet that describes
the only technical fix that might prevent underground storage tanks
from leaking directly into soil and water-- secondary containment
(basically, a bathtub beneath the tank). Get: SECONDARY CONTAINMENT: A
STORAGE TANKS, PART 1]. $2.50 from EDF. EPA did not require this
technology in its new storage tank regulations--it required, instead,
leak detection systems that signal after a problem has occurred.

For a good introduction to issues of groundwater contamination and
various federal laws that may help you take action to deal with
groundwater contamination, also get: Eric P. Jorgensen, editor, THE
Island Press [1718 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20036; phone
(202) 232-7933], 1989). $19.95 paperback.

However, note that THE POISONED WELL does not take a truly modern
approach to the problem because it does not discuss zero discharge
systems, clean production, the banning of persistent, bioaccumulative
toxics, and other needed pollution prevention measures.

TECHNOLOGIES [EPA/625/6-87/015] (Washington, DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1987). Free from: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(U.S. EPA) Office of Research and Development, Publications Office, 26
West MLK Drive, Cincinnati, Ohio 45268; phone (513) 569-7562; ask for
EPA Technology Transfer Publication 625/6-87/015. While you're at it,
request from the same office a free copy of U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, HANDBOOK GROUND WATER (Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1987); request EPA Technology Transfer
Publication 625/6-87/016. This is the government's best introduction to

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: ust; oil; gasoline; leaks; petroleum; mobil;
brooklyn, ny; tosco corp; san francisco, ca; exxon valdez; chevron; el
segundo; oil spills; tom betteg; cbs tv; persian gulf; eco-terrorism;
helga butler; epa; landfill liners; groundwater; water pollution;
remedial action; east setauket, ny; liability; drinking water; fl;
miami, fl;