Leaking underground tanks prompt response from DHEC

For only the second time in more than a decade, the state’s environmental agency is telling budget writers it needs money to clean up gasoline-polluted sites that threaten drinking water and property values across South Carolina.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control needs an extra $7.5 million for cleanups at places polluted by leaking underground storage tanks, according to a list of budget priorities it provided to the House Ways and Means Committee.

South Carolina has one of the nation’s 10 largest backlogs of sites polluted by leaking tanks — and DHEC has known for years that fuel tank leaks have tainted 80 percent of the places with contaminated groundwater.

But from 1997 to 2007, DHEC never asked for cleanup money in official budget requests to the Legislature, The State newspaper reported in November. Last year, DHEC asked lawmakers for $278,000 — while promising the federal government it would seek $8 million annually for the next five years, the newspaper found in a series of stories about the missteps at DHEC.

The backlog is so significant the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has threatened sanctions if the state doesn’t speed up the pace of storage tank cleanups. The state has some 3,000 sites polluted by underground tanks. This year’s request reflects the need to address the problem, according to DHEC.

Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, said DHEC’s request is overdue after years of inaction. Alexander, who chairs a Senate budget panel, grilled agency Commissioner Earl Hunter last year over why he hadn’t sought more money.

“Obviously, they have changed their position from last year,” Alexander said. “With the financial situation we’re in now, I don’t hold out much hope for all this (money). At least they’re headed in the right direction.

“Had they done this in previous years ... we’d be further down the road.”

Underground storage tank leaks come mostly from gasoline stations, maintenance yards, convenience stores and farms. Pollutants that seep from these tanks into groundwater often include benzene, which can cause cancer, and MTBE, a gas additive of increasing health concern.

The pollution has tainted wells in rural neighborhoods, but it also has made it more difficult for some landowners to sell property.

Like most states, South Carolina established underground storage tank cleanup funds about 20 years ago to help businesses struggling with the cost, such as “mom-and-pop” stores. Some critics say the S.C. cleanup fund should be phased out once the old sites are taken care of.

South Carolina generates some $17 million to $19 million annually for its cleanup fund through a half-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. In 2007 and 2008, the Legislature set aside $9 million for the cleanup effort after lobbying by the S.C. Petroleum Marketers Association. But the state needs an additional $8 million annually over the next five years to address the backlog.

The EPA has said it might declare the state fund insolvent for most underground storage tank cleanups — meaning small gasoline stations and convenience stores would be stuck with the pollution cleanup bills.

DHEC’s appeal for $7.5 million couldn’t come at a worst time financially in South Carolina. Budget cuts have affected every state agency and the prospects for substantial increases in funding next year are not good. DHEC has already cut $32 million from its budget since the current fiscal year began last summer.

Wanda Crotwell, a DHEC lobbyist, said it will be difficult to find more money for cleanups. But she told budget writers last week it is a priority to “at least keep in the back of your mind”’ if money becomes available.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.