Over half a million underground storage tanks (UST) are present throughout the United States. These unique systems help thousands of organizations and companies operate safely within their communities to provide a variety of services to Americans.
However, these systems are shadowed in negative stigma due to growing concerns of groundwater contamination and other safety measures. It puts owners and permittees in the hot seat to manage and operate these systems in a responsible manner.
The current concerns surrounding a UST
These unground storage tank systems are a critical component for companies that use certain hazardous materials. The systems use pipes to connect from the tank (or a combination of multiple tanks) with underground ancillary equipment and any containment system. Each state has its own regulations and programs to monitor USTs. In Oregon, the Underground Storage Tank Program is part of the Department of Environmental Quality.
Through this department, project managers or company administrators work to: register tanks, secure operation certificates, install or remove any USTs, cleanup of soil and groundwater contamination from petroleum leaks, train any system operators, prevent any future leaks, and learn about the rules surrounding Oregon’s UST rules.
The state program is robust, but it is still up to the companies or organizations themselves to monitor and operate the USTs safely to prevent any potential spills or contamination. There are huge concerns specifically surrounding USTS since many older systems used bare steel, a material that corrodes over time. This allows the content to leak into the surrounding environment, which means corrupting groundwater and soil in Oregon’s land.
There is also a likelihood of leaks with faulty installation, improper management, and inadequate maintenance of these sensitive systems.
Congress passed a series of laws from 1984 through 2015 to address the concerns of USTs on human health. The newest regulations focus on ensuring:
- Adding periodic operation and maintenance requirements for UST systems through state programs
- Adding additional requirements to ensure UST system compatibility before storing certain biofuel blends
- Removing past deferrals for emergency generator tanks, airport hydrant systems, and field-constructed tanks
It is critical to note while these laws were established at the federal level, companies need to adhere to their local guidelines. In the case of Oregon, the Environmental Protection Agency approves of the state program which means the state’s laws and regulations are in effect rather than the federal requirements.
What happens if a UST leaks?
With leaks being a primary concern, it begs the question of why leaks are so dangerous for the surrounding communities. The largest risk is contaminating community drinking water. With over 50% of the nation’s population (and almost 100% in rural communities) relying on groundwater, it makes it critical to prevent tanks from leaking any substances through the soil and into the groundwater.
It makes the process of leak detection more critical for Oregon regulators and operators. According to the 2015 requirements set up by Congress, when owners install or replace tanks after 2016, “the equipment must be secondarily contained and monitored for releases using interstitial monitoring.”
This monitoring tactic usually requires a multi-walled system or an additional barrier within the system to monitor any leaks in the UST without harming the function of the tanks themselves. Any site that plans to use this method must be assessed to demonstrate that the second barrier is above the season-high groundwater and not in the 25-year flood plain, according to the Oregon law.
For any system installed prior to 2016, there are multiple options depending on the site and system in place, including vapor detection or liquid detectors. The method of detection will depend on various factors, such as:
- Groundwater depth
- Soil type
- Temperature ranges
- Availability of experienced installers
- The cost to install and maintain the UST
- Facility configuration
Whether it is a newer or older UST, the detection system should alert operators whenever there is a “release” – a suspected leak within a UST. Immediately, there are critical steps to take.
Escape the smell. You, any coworkers, or surrounding customers should escape the immediate area where you can smell or see anything that is an oily sheen near the facility. The same is true if neighbors complain about any smells or tastes that resemble petroleum.
Investigate the conditions. An owner and permittee must initiate an investigation to confirm if there is a suspected leak coming from the UST. It must be completed within seven days of the initial complaints. It’s also crucial that there are no immediate hazards to anyone in the immediate area.
Report the findings to the DEQ. After the seven-day period, owners must submit their results to the Oregon DEQ to determine what the next steps are to clean and contain the leak from further environmental impacts.
Conduct a system test. Once the results are submitted, the owner and permittees will need to conduct a tightness test to determine if the leak exists in the UST or in the underground piping that contains the substance. There is a different process to address one problem versus the other.
Pursue a site assessment. There will also be an assessment to determine the measurement “for the presence of a release where contamination is most likely to be present based on all information available.”
This list is an oversimplification of how owners will immediately respond and the process of addressing the release, but it shows the broad strokes of how permittees can prevent significant damage and costs from their USTs on the surrounding community.
The Future of USTs
Leaks are not the “nail in the coffin” for USTs. Many leaks happen throughout Oregon and tend to receive necessary repairs to help organizations continue to function with the equipment they need with minimal impacts on their communities.
The future of USTs depends on operators and their speed towards action when it comes to maintaining, operating, and addressing any potential hazards for these systems.
This will also improve as more outdated systems are updated with the newer piping that allows for that additional barrier that holds petroleum leaks at bay. However, the costs will continue to affect owners until the system is more effective for everyone.
Companies need to work with legal support to ensure there are not any oversights or unnecessary blame thrust upon them throughout the UST process, especially for tank permits or releases. Make sure to seek the necessary support before the costs overwhelm any chance of recovery.