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Rules On Underground Tanks Seek To Prevent Groundwater Contamination

September 14, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hundreds of thousands of operations, ranging from corner service stations to giant oil companies, are being subjected to the first federal rules aimed at preventing contamination of groundwater by underground tanks.

Almost 2 million tanks, roughly 97 percent of them holding gasoline or some other petroleum product, are covered by a 370-page set of regulations released Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rules apply to new tanks starting in December, but give owners until December 1998 to bring all existing tanks up to the new standards.

The rules require protection against corrosion, either electrical devices or plastic liners for steel tanks or use of non-steel tanks; leak detection systems, which may be inventory record-keeping in some cases if an annual tightness test is performed; and devices to prevent spills and overfilling.

Existing tanks gradually will come under the regulations, the oldest tanks first. Tanks that are 25 years old or of unknown age will have to get a leak detection system by December 1989.

Tanks may be exempted from the rules if a corrosion expert certifies that they will not corrode in the particular soil they’re in, but EPA expects this to be rare.

Home heating oil tanks and fuel tanks of less than 1,100 gallons for non- commercial home or farm use are not covered.

EPA surveys have shown that anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of the 750,000 installations with tanks are having or have had a significant leak, and anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 tanks are involved in some kind of cleanup project.

Concerned that a gallon of gasoline can contaminate a million gallons of groundwater, Congress in 1984 required the EPA to adopt the regulations and two years later allocated $500 million to help with cleanups.

The agency said it tightened provisions for piping from an April 1987 draft because of growing evidence that many leaks start there, rather than in the tank itself.

However, environmental groups criticized the agency for failing to require double-walled tanks or other double-barrier containment systems for gasoline tanks. The agency specified their use only for some 60,000 chemical tanks.

″It will cost a lot more to clean up after the fact than it would to put in double-walled tanks to begin with,″ said Morgan Gopnik, an engineer with the Environmental Action Foundation.

″EPA is leaving the U.S. supply of drinking water vulnerable to petroleum contamination,″ said staff scientist Lois Epstein of the Environmental Defense Fund.

″The regulations are designed to minimize their impact on the regulated community, not to protect the environment and the public from the hazards of petroleum contamination,″ she said.

Although the agency didn’t perform a cost-benefit calculation, J. Winston Porter, assistant EPA administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said that ″secondary containment is quite expensive″ and would add unspecified billions to the cost of the final regulations.

″Whether you’re mom and pop or Exxon, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep a leaking gasoline tank in the ground. The liability is enormous,″ Porter said.

A service station with three 5,000-gallon tanks might have to spend $3,000 to $8,000 on a leak detection system and $10,000 to $48,000 on an electrical rust-prevention system, EPA estimated.

The agency estimated the benefits from reduced spills in future years at $73 billion in today’s dollars, with costs to tank owners at $54 billion.

A dozen states have tank programs of their own, and any state may operate a more stringent regulatory program than the national rules if the EPA approves.

The regulations become effective 90 days from publication in the Federal Register, expected any day.

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