Leaky tanks

November 21, 2008 

QUESTION: How big are underground storage tanks?

ANSWER: Tanks are often longer than your living room sofa and contain 5,000 to 15,000 gallons of fuel.

QUESTION: When did everyone begin worrying about leaks?

ANSWER: The federal government started a push in the 1980s to clean up fuel tank spills amid growing evidence that groundwater was at risk. Gasoline, diesel and harmful chemicals were oozing from rusting steel tanks buried at service stations, convenience stores, factories and automobile repair shops. New tanks installed after 1988 have leak detection systems and a shell made with material resistant to gasoline, diesel and ethanol.

QUESTION: So how did South Carolina handle the problem?

ANSWER: Like most states, South Carolina established a fund intended to make sure cleanup work was done. In the early 1990s, the state told people with underground tanks to report them to DHEC. In exchange, they could receive cleanup money from the fund if contamination was found.

QUESTION: So, do property owners pay anything?

ANSWER: Tank owners must pay the first $25,000. The state pays the rest, usually up to $1 million per leak. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) either pays contractors to do the work or reimburses property owners who hire their own consultants. On sites not considered highly polluted, contractors monitor the leak to ensure contaminants don’t threaten a well or a creek. Sites that are more polluted require a more active cleanup.

QUESTION: Where does South Carolina get its cleanup money?

ANSWER: Most, about $17 million to $19 million a year, comes from a half-cent tax on gasoline motorists pay at the pump. After federal officials blasted the state for not cleaning up sites quickly enough, the S.C. Petroleum Marketers Association and DHEC persuaded lawmakers to approve an extra $5 million in 2007 and $4 million this past spring.

QUESTION: Is that new money enough to clean up the backlog of sites?

ANSWER: No, says the Environmental Protection Agency. The state needs $8 million more annually for the next five years to clean up the most dangerously polluted sites.

QUESTION: Will private tank owners, such as service stations and convenience stores, ever pay more for cleanups?

ANSWER: It’s possible. With new tanks sturdier and easier to insure, some people say taxpayer dollars should not cover future leaks. Florida, Texas and several other states have switched to private insurance, with mixed results. Critics of private insurance say having a state fund gives the government more control over cleanups. Already-contaminated sites likely still would be covered by the state fund because they would be difficult to insure.

QUESTION: Who owns the bulk of tainted sites?

ANSWER: Convenience stores and the state Department of Transportation. The North Carolina-based Pantry convenience store chain has the most sites awaiting cleanup, DHEC records show.

QUESTION: How does South Carolina’s cleanup fund compare to those of other states of similar size?

ANSWER: Arizona, Colorado and Virginia take in $11 million to $21 million, more annually than South Carolina, officials in those states said.

QUESTION: Do all old steel tanks leak?

ANSWER: Steel tanks left in the ground for decades rot like Swiss cheese, said Pat Coyne of Environmental Data Resources Inc., a risk management company. Coyne said a joke in the industry is: “What percentage of steel tanks leak? 100 percent!”

SOURCES: U.S. EPA, S.C. DHEC, S.C. Legislative Audit Council, Idaho Division of Environmental Quality, The Associated Press

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