Risks Grow as Underground Tanks Age
Risks Grow as Underground Tanks Age
CSP Daily News’ interview with Clay Moore
Leaking underground storage tanks are among the dangers convenience stores and fuel centers dread to discover, but even minor oversights related to safety monitoring can trigger government involvement, experts say.
To prevent leaks that could cause environmental damage—including groundwater contamination, fires and explosions—government agencies are cracking down on safety and environmental violations, including missing documentation. They want to encourage compliance with state and federal regulations.
They can send a notice of violation for an expired permit, missed inspection, failure to maintain a Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) plan, poor inventory monitoring and omissions of required documentation and other information, according to a recent report on top underground storage tank violations and the cost of noncompliance by global fuel safety testing and risk-management firm Leighton O’Brien, with a U.S. office in Rockledge, Florida.
While misplacing a monitoring report might seem like relatively minor violation, to an inspector it can raise a concern the convenience store isn’t doing all it can to prevent a problem, said Clay Moore, senior director of product at Leighton O’Brien.
According to the report, which analyzed 125,000 notices of violations related to underground storage tanks in five states—Texas, California, New York, Illinois and Arizona—seven of the Top 10 violations involved issues with the process of inspecting, permitting and documentation.
The Top 10 notices of violations were:
- Missing documentation
- Missing inventory control reporting
- Water ingress
- Permits not up-to-date
- 30-day inspection delays
- SPCC plans not maintained
- Vapor recovery test not conducted
- Stormwater pollution violations
- Red tag removal
- Use of out-of-service tank
To learn more, the full report can be downloaded here.
Many c-store operators spend most of their time focusing on customers and fall out of compliance with environmental and safety regulations. “They’re thinking about [the] customer [that] is complaining and is wanting his sandwich or cigarettes,” he said. “He’s looking at that guy. He’s not really thinking about all the moving pieces around the petroleum space.”
They don’t stop to think, “If you’re leaking fuel, the customer isn’t going to be happy,” Moore said.
With many government agencies aware underground storage tanks put into service decades ago are showing signs of aging, convenience-store owners must be extra vigilant. The tanks are reaching the end of their expected lifetime and may be starting to leak, Moore said.
Out of warranty
In the United States, about 98,000 single-wall tanks are older than 30 years, said Sally Locke, head of marketing at Leighton O’Brien.
An even larger number—about 150,000 underground storage tanks in North America—are expected to be out of warranty by 2030, according to the Petroleum Equipment Institute (PEI) in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It’s giving government agencies—from local county offices to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—a reason to look more closely at whether a convenience store or fuel station is complying with environmental and hazardous waste laws.
Looking closely enough at a fuel station will probably yield a violation, said Haji Mahmood Alam, president of Faizan Corp., which owns Chevron and Arco stations with convenience stores in northern California. “Any gas station, I can tell you, there are 10 violations there. It’s nothing perfect,” he said. But they often don’t involve leaking gas tanks. Alam compared it to operating an older vehicle. If you take an older car to a dealer and ask them to identify possible issues, the dealer will come up with 10 different problems, he said.
Alam was the defendant in a civil matter in Alameda County Superior Court this year after he was issued notices of violation for missing routine tests and required documentation at a Chevron ExtraMile location in Satna Rosa. “This sounded like it’s a big deal. This scared people,” he said, despite the fact no petroleum leak was confirmed. The court imposed civil penalties of $327,000 and ordered the company to pay $173,000 in a partial reimbursement of the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and other costs of enforcement.
Alam said the case was a revenue-generator for the counties involved. He admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement. Alam said he wasn’t singled out because this kind of enforcement has happened to many other people.
Leighton O’Brien’s research suggests some hazardous waste violations involve leaking tanks that can affect the environment.
In the six months leading up to March 2022, the U.S. had about 2,275 confirmed petroleum releases, Locke said, citing data from the EPA. A 0.1-cent-per-gallon fee assessed by the federal government for the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Fund supports enforcement.
While delinquent testing can trigger a notice of violation, proactive convenience-store owners can avoid expensive litigation with government agencies by being extra vigilant about monitoring, maintenance and testing, Moore said.
But actual leaks also occur, and need to be addressed promptly, Moore said. Often the first indication of a leak is inventory data that doesn’t seem to add up. “When you start seeing loss of fuel when there’s no sales occurring, that’s a big red flag,” Moore said. “This is where you start digging into where is my loss occurring at?”
Missing tests and monitoring records also might be involved in the oversights. “This is where you get into common best practices,” he said.
When inspectors visit, the c-store owners will have a problem if they’re missing documents. “They can’t go back and fabricate. That’s the point where everybody scrambles. Where’s this? Where’s this? They know they’re going to have a problem from six months ago because it wasn’t there. It wasn’t being done,” Moore said.
Inspectors look for even small violations because they can lead to larger issues. “A small hole will only grow larger,” he said.
Failing to act swiftly on the earliest signs can lead to environmental and safety hazards, fines and worse. Fuel spills can cause explosions and contaminate ground water, Moore said.
The cost to correct the problem often increases over time, he said. The cost to dig up and replace an underground tank is about $180,000, said Moore, who is based in Tennessee.
“If there’s a leak, a release in the tank, then not only do you have the fines and NOVs (notice of violations) and those things, you also have remediation,” Moore said. It can cost $5 million or more for a clean up project, he said.
“The sooner you know about it, the cheaper it is to fix. The more cost-effective you are, the more efficient.”
For mom-and-pop convenience stores, budgetary constraints often lead them to put off maintenance and repairs. It might cause them to say, “It’s not that bad,” Moore said.
For large convenience-store chains, labor shortages can lead to sloppy maintenance and unaddressed issues. “They’ve checked the box, but they don’t want to think about what it means,” Moore said. “It’s easier for things to fall between the cracks,” he said.
By taking more care to monitor, test and make repairs, “You are not only being compliant. You have no fines so you are also more profitable,” he said.Download Report
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