Environmental Protection:

Improved Inspections and Enforcement Would Ensure Safer Underground Storage Tanks

GAO-02-176T: Published: Nov 1, 2001. Publicly Released: Nov 1, 2001.

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Contaminated soil or water resulting from leaks at underground storage tanks can pose serious health risks. In 1984, Congress created the Underground Storage Tank (UST) program to protect the public from potential leaks. Under the program, the Environmental Protection Agency required tank owners to install new leak detection equipment and new spill-, overfill-, and corrosion-prevention equipment. GAO found that about 1.5 million tanks have been permanently closed since the program was created, but more than half of the states do not inspect all of their tanks often enough to meet the minimum rate recommended by EPA--at least once every three years. States reported that even tanks with the required leak prevention and detection equipment continue to leak, although the full extent of the problem is unknown.

Matter 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 USTs and enforce federal requirements. For example, the act prescribes inspection requirements for tanks, requires EPA to establish training requirements for personnel 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 EPA and state funding to carry out these provisions.

    Matter: Congress may want to consider EPA's estimate of resource needs and determine whether to increase the resources it provides for the program. For example, one way would be to increase the amount of funds it appropriates from the trust fund and allow states to spend a limited portion on training, inspection, and enforcement activities, as long as cleanups are not delayed. Congress may also want to (1) authorize EPA to require physical inspections of all tanks on a periodic basis, (2) authorize EPA to prohibit fuel deliveries to tanks that do not comply with federal requirements, and (3) require that states have similar authority to prohibit fuel deliveries.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has prepared and provided to Congress estimates of the additional costs for inspecting USTs in 1-, 2-, and 3-year cycles. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress established a 3-year inspection cycle requirement and they authorized additional funding to implement this provision. 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 ensure all regulated tanks comply with federal requirements and are safe.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that underground storage tanks meet federal requirements to prevent contamination that poses health risks, EPA should present to the Congress an estimate of the total additional resources EPA and states need to conduct the training, inspection, and enforcement actions necessary to ensure tank compliance with federal requirements.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA sets expectations for inspections of all federally regulated USTs during the annual grant negotiation process with each state. Additionally, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, enacted in August 2005, established a minimum inspection frequency requirement. Specifically, the act requires that EPA or an authorized state inspect each federally regulated tank at least once every 3 years to determine compliance with federal and state requirements.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that underground storage tanks meet federal requirements to prevent contamination that poses health risks, EPA should negotiate with each state to reach a minimum frequency for physical inspections of all its tanks.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has completed an evaluation of the training 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 technical training courses are planned.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that underground storage tanks meet federal requirements to prevent contamination that poses health risks, EPA should supplement the training support it has provided to date by having each region work with each of the states in its jurisdiction 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 cleanup 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: To better ensure that underground storage tanks meet federal requirements to prevent contamination that poses health risks, EPA should work with the states to address the remaining non-upgraded tanks, such as reviewing available information to determine those that pose the greatest risks and setting up timetables to remove or close these tanks.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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