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 leaking.
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 terrorist."
(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 leak.)
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' SERIES ON LEAKING UNDERGROUND STORAGE TANKS, PART 2] (Washington, DC: 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 SECOND LINE OF DEFENSE [A CITIZENS' SERIES ON LEAKING UNDERGROUND 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 POISONED WELL; STRATEGIES FOR GROUNDWATER PROTECTION (Washington, DC: 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.
Also consider getting: UNDERGROUND STORAGE TANK CORRECTIVE ACTION
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 groundwater.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: ust; underground storage tanks; oil; gasoline; leaks; petroleum; mobil oil; brooklyn, ny; tosco corp; san francisco; exxon valdez; chevron; el segundo; oil spills; tom betteg; cbs; persian gulf; eco-terrorism; helga butler; epa; liners; groundwater; water pollution; remedial actions; li; east setauket; liability; drinking water; fl; miami;