Environmental Protection:

Improved Inspections and Enforcement Would Better Ensure the Safety of Underground Storage Tanks

GAO-01-464: Published: May 4, 2001. Publicly Released: May 9, 2001.

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The states and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot ensure that all active underground storage tanks have the required leak-, spill-, and overfill-protection equipment installed, nor can they guarantee that the installed equipment is being properly operated and maintained. Although the states and EPA regions focus most of their limited resources on monitoring active tanks, empty or inactive tanks can also potentially contaminate soil and groundwater. Half of the states have not physically inspected all of their tanks, and several others have not done inspections often enough to ensure the tanks' safety. Moreover, most states and EPA lack authority to use the most effective enforcement tools, and many state officials acknowledge that additional enforcement tools and resources were needed to ensure tank safety. EPA has the opportunity to correct these limitations within its own regions and to help states correct them through its new tank program initiatives. However, the agency has yet to define many of the implementation details, so it is difficult to determine whether the proposed actions will ensure more inspection coverage and more effective enforcement, especially within the states. Congress could help alleviate the states' resource shortages by providing additional funding for inspections and enforcement or greater flexibility to use existing funds to improve these activities.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2005, the President signed into law the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The Energy Act includes provisions that strengthen EPA's and states' ability to inspect underground storage tanks and enforce federal requirements. For example, the act prescribes inspection requirements for tanks, requires EPA to establish training requirements for persons responsible for daily tank operation and maintenance, prohibits delivery of a regulated substance into non-compliant tanks, and requires tank and piping secondary containment to protect groundwater from contamination. In addition, the Energy Act authorizes significant increases in state funding to carry out these provisions.

    Matter: Congress may consider taking the following actions to strengthen EPA's and the states' ability to inspect tanks and enforce federal requirements. Congress may want to increase the resources available to the underground storage tank program and base the amount of increase on a consideration of the Administrator's estimate of additional resources needed. One way to do this is to increase the amount of funds Congress provides from the trust fund and to authorize states to spend a limited portion of these monies on training, inspection, and maintenance activities when needed, as long as this does not interfere with tank cleanup progress.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2005, the President signed into law the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The Energy Act includes provisions that strengthen EPA's and states' ability to inspect underground storage tanks and enforce federal requirements. Specifically, the act requires that each regulated tank be inspected at least once every 3 years and prohibits delivery of a regulated substance into an underground storage tank which has been identified by EPA or a state implementing agency to be ineligible.

    Matter: Congress may want to (1) authorize EPA to establish a federal requirement for physical inspections of all tanks on a periodic basis, (2) authorize EPA to prohibit fuel delivery to tanks that do not comply with federal requirements, and (3) establish a federal requirement that states have similar authority to prohibit fuel deliveries to problem tanks.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has prepared and provided to the Congress estimates of additional costs for inspecting USTs in 1-, 2-, and 3-year cycles. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Congress established a 3-year inspection cycle requirement and they authorized additional funding to implement this requirement. Additionally, EPA has provided a web-based training capability which UST owners, operators, and state personnel can access through the internet at little or no cost. EPA believes that funding is sufficient for the agency and the states to continue to make progress to ensure all regulated tanks comply with federal requirements and are safe.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should present to the Congress an estimate of the total additional resources the agency and states need to fully ensure all regulated tanks comply with federal requirements and are safe. The Administrator should base this estimate in part on a compilation of the information about individual states' training, inspection, and enforcement resource needs that the EPA regions can generate from their annual state reviews and grant negotiations.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA sets expectations for inspections of all federally-regulated USTs during the annual grant negotiation process. Additionally, in August 2005, the President signed into law the Energy Policy Act of 2005 which includes provisions that strengthen EPA's and states' ability to inspect USTs. Specifically, the act requires that EPA or an authorized state inspect each regulated tank at least once every 3 years to determine compliance with federal and state requirements.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should have the Director of the Office of Underground Storage Tanks include a minimum frequency for physical inspections of all tanks in the expectations that it sets with states during the grant negotiation process. Periodic physical inspections of all tanks will provide states better data on problem tanks that will in turn help states to better enforce federal requirements.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has completed an evaluation of the training that is available for UST owners, operators, and inspectors and identified specific training needs. Based on this evaluation, EPA has implemented a web-based UST virtual classroom that provides internet-accessible training courses. Two introductory-level training courses are currently available and additional, more detailed training courses are planned.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should have the Director of the Office of Underground Storage Tanks supplement EPA's more general training support, such as new manuals and materials, by having each region work with each of its states to determine specific training needs and tailored ways to meet them.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA and the states are using a variety of approaches to address non-upgraded tanks. For example, EPA is working with states to use Geographic Information Systems to locate facilities that pose the greatest risk, and states are using a portion of their LUST trust fund allocations to clean up abandoned tanks. Also, EPA has initiated a new underground storage tanks (UST) fields program to assess and clean up facilities with empty or inactive tanks and has funded 50 pilot projects under this program. Furthermore, new legislation provides authority to use Brownfields program funding to assess and clean up petroleum releases from USTs. In June 2003, EPA issued 101 Brownfields program grants--totaling $22.5 million--for assessment and cleanup of petroleum contaminated sites, many of which were UST sites. EPA and states find few instances where non-upgraded tanks are actually in operation; when found, however, these cases are given the highest enforcement priority.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should have the Director of the Office of Underground Storage Tanks address the issue of non-upgraded tanks by (1) assessing empty tanks to determine which ones are most likely to cause contamination and pose problems, (2) setting up time tables to remove the tanks that pose risks or close them in place in accordance with federal procedures, and (3) taking enforcement actions against tank owners and operators who continue to operate their tanks without the required equipment.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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