The state’s environmental agency has known for years that leaking fuel tanks are the culprit in 80 percent of the polluted groundwater cases across South Carolina.
But the agency consistently has failed to make cleaning up the mess a budget priority — in a state where one in four residents drinks from a well, records show.
Only once since 1997 has the state Department of Health and Environmental Control listed underground storage tank cleanups on its list of budget priorities to the S.C. Legislature. In that case, DHEC asked for only a fraction of the $40 million it needs to clean up a backlog of poisoned sites.
Just eight states have more sites awaiting cleanup, according to a 2008 federal report. South Carolina has roughly the same number of sites polluted by leaky tanks — about 3,000 — as it did in the mid-1990s.
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Many of the tainted sites were contaminated by older tanks that aren’t as sturdy as those installed today. They were buried years ago to dispense gasoline motorists buy at the pump. The state cleanup effort, begun in 1988, was supposed to make sure pollution didn’t linger, because many gas station owners could not afford the high clean up costs.
Budget documents reviewed by The State show DHEC considered other needs, including building renovations and beach renourishment, more important priorities than cleaning up the toxic aftermath of leaking fuel tanks. The agency, for instance, sought more than $8 million for beach renourishment during the decade it failed to make tank cleanups a priority, records show.
Michael Fields, director of the S.C. Petroleum Marketers Association, said DHEC hasn’t been aggressive in seeking cleanup money. His members include gas stations and convenience store owners with underground tanks.
In an October 2007 letter, DHEC told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it would seek $8 million annually for five years from the Legislature to speed the pace of cleanups. But its official budget request that year was for $278,000 — and that was for staff, not for cleanups.
DHEC “negotiated a deal with the EPA to get $8 million and did not include” tank cleanups as a funding priority, Fields said. “That’s been my biggest frustration.”
DHEC Commissioner Earl Hunter defended his agency’s effort. He said the state has been better at locating buried tanks than other states. Hunter said the agency has many needs to juggle when setting budget priorities.
“You have to make judgment calls of what you’re going to include” on the priority list, he said.
Hunter said DHEC has focused on other budget priorities because it knew industry groups were taking up the cause with lawmakers.
But Fields said his trade group shouldn’t have to go it alone in lobbying lawmakers.
Bill Truman, who oversees the EPA’s tank cleanup program in the Southeast, said he believes the agency has good regulators and is making a good-faith effort to find more cash.
Still, he said, identifying the tanks is not the problem — getting polluted sites cleaned up is.
“They need a transfusion of money,” Truman said.
THE TASTE OF OIL
Landowners and petroleum industry officials say something should have been done long ago to attack the backlog.
A pinhole in an underground storage tank can spill 400 gallons of fuel in a year, a 2005 Sierra Club report said.
Gasoline and other fuels often contain benzene, a cancer-causing chemical compound, as well as MTBE, a gas additive. MTBE is under increasing scrutiny for its effect on people’s nervous and digestive systems.
No one knows how many people are sickened each year from bad water attributable to leaky tanks. But underground tanks have caused pollution at 3,700 of the 4,400 places in South Carolina with contaminated groundwater, according to a recent agency groundwater pollution report.
That includes a neighborhood in Richland County’s Hopkins community that has suffered extensive groundwater contamination. DHEC has spent $2.3 million on cleanup since the late 1980s.
James Randolph, who raised two children in the area, said he noticed a foul odor and taste in his drinking water more than 15 years ago. He eventually chose not to drink it. By 2001, DHEC verified that an old gas station was polluting about three dozen wells in his neighborhood.
DHEC supplied filters to remove contaminants from the water. But Randolph and others say polluted water is something no one should endure. For years, the family drank bottled water but bathed with tap water.
“It is not decent enough to take a shower in,” he said. “You smell something like that and you don’t even want to put it on your skin.”
Randolph since has run a water line from his mother’s well, next door, to his home. It supplies cleaner water, he said.
In larger urban areas, which almost always draw their drinking water from lakes or rivers, leaks pose less of a health threat but complicate redevelopment and threaten property values.
A 2006 study of 70 contaminated S.C. sites showed tank pollution lowered land values by about $41 million. Each leak tainted an average 4.3 parcels of land, for an average loss of nearly $600,000, according to the Cleveland State University study.
Polluted sites “can create blighting economic dead zones,” the study warned. “If the contamination has spread beyond the source site, affected properties may sit vacant for years,” awaiting cleanup.
Robert Simons, the study’s author, said contamination can make it difficult to buy a site.
“The bank says, ‘Sure, we want to make the loan, but if we have to take the property back on foreclosure, it wouldn’t be worth the (money) we loaned,’” he said.
Columbia real estate developer Travis Butler said pollution from leaky tanks wasn’t the only reason he decided last year against building a retail complex at Harden and Gervais streets. But it was a factor, he said. The contamination, discovered in 1991, has spread from the corner’s Exxon station to several other properties.
“I can’t get a construction loan to build unless I’ve got a clean bill of health from DHEC,” he said.
Exxon spokeswoman Prem Nair said a local distributor now owns the station but her company agreed to clean up the pollution. Work began in 2005, she said.
MONEY IS THE ISSUE
South Carolina’s problem is both significant and long-standing.
About 75 percent of sites awaiting cleanup were discovered more than a decade ago, DHEC records show. Richland County has one of the biggest backlogs.
A 2005 Sierra Club report said the state had cleaned up 59 percent of polluted sites. The national average was 71 percent. Twenty-five to 30 percent of South Carolinians drink from public or private wells supplied by groundwater, DHEC studies show.
Squabbles with some cleanup contractors and DHEC’s failure to closely monitor some of the work have contributed to the backlog. For example, some Department of Transportation maintenance yards have taken more than a decade to clean up because of disputes, records show.
But the EPA says money is the biggest issue.
DHEC officials say they have tried to get more money over the years.
The agency sent a “factsheet” to lawmakers last year that said DHEC “pursued several initiatives” that failed in the 1990s.
The State asked DHEC officials several times to elaborate and was told that DHEC had backed the failed attempt to raise the gas tax in 2007.
DHEC says it is making slow progress — but the effort isn’t easy.
“The work on these sites is complex and cannot be rushed simply to meet some arbitrary deadline,” Stan Clark, an assistant chief in DHEC’s bureau of land and waste management division, wrote in an e-mail to The State.
Like most states, South Carolina has a state fund that pays for the bulk of the underground storage tank cleanups. The fund acts as a kind of insurance pool for gas stations and convenience stores with problem tanks.
A half-cent of the state’s 16.75-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax goes into the fund.
The tax generates $17 million to $19 million annually for the fund. But the state needs at least $8 million on top of that each year for the next five years, according to the EPA.
Fields is skeptical DHEC will carry out the plan to seek $8 million annually over the next five years because of the slow economy.
Tank owners also pay a small fee to help with cleanups. But without DHEC’s help to get additional money, petroleum marketers now are considering paying higher fees to clean up the backlog of polluted sites, Fields said. Fields’ group is suggesting lawmakers raise the annual fees tank owners pay the state. He proposes raising the fee for each tank from $100 to $500 over five years.
The EPA, meanwhile, has launched a study to determine why South Carolina’s cleanup pace is so slow. The study also is looking at 16 other states.
LAWMAKERS LOOKING FOR PRIORITIES
DHEC’s handling of the backlog has irked some lawmakers who say DHEC asked them at the 11th hour last year to bail out the program before the EPA cracked down on South Carolina.
DHEC was supporting a gasoline tax increase to get the $17 million it told lawmakers it needed.
State Rep. Mac Toole couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Toole said he thought the cleanup program was making progress.
“One of my issues was, ‘Why was this not brought to us before?’” the Lexington County Republican said recently. “I was caught off guard and was very uncomfortable with the plan.”
The effort to raise money failed, in large part because surprised lawmakers such as Toole didn’t want to increase the price of gasoline for motorists.
In the past two years, however, lawmakers have allotted $9 million toward cleanups, in large part because of the Petroleum Marketers Association’s lobbying. The EPA has said the state needs to commit at least twice that every year.
Lawmakers say DHEC officials should have been more forceful in describing the problem if they needed the money.
Last year, for the first time in at least 11 years, DHEC listed the tank cleanup program on its list of budget priorities for this year. That’s when it asked for $278,000.
Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, took note during a Senate finance subcommittee meeting in February. He wanted to know why tank cleanups were so low on the list — they were No. 19 of 19 items.
“It just makes it look like it’s not necessarily a priority for you,” Alexander told DHEC’s Hunter during the hearing.
Hunter told him the agency had many needs at a time of tightening state budgets. Bigger priorities were anti-smoking programs, children’s health care and laboratory upgrades, last year’s budget request shows.
“We don’t want to waste y’all’s time, knowing that you have limited resources and have to make some tough choices,” Hunter told the Senate Finance Committee panel.
Rep. Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said recently that it’s important for DHEC and other agencies to put their needs on official budget priority requests each year.
“If it’s not on the priority list, I don’t know how it would come to our attention,” he said.
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.