Crews prepare to install an underground storage tank (UST) at a gas station in Michigan. Wikimedia Commons: Dwight Burdette
Crews prepare to install an underground storage tank (UST) at a gas station in Michigan. Wikimedia Commons: Dwight Burdette

There’s enough benzene – a known carcinogen – in 10 gallons of gasoline to contaminate 12 million gallons of drinking water.

In 1983, the television program “60 Minutes” brought this to Americans’ attention. “Check the Water” explained how gasoline and diesel stored under gas stations, convenience stores, and public and private fleet yards leaks into groundwater, the No. 1 source of drinking water for roughly half the nation.

The story prompted EPA to require all states to do what some had already begun doing: regulate how, where, and in what materials fuel is buried. In 1984, the agency added Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Subtitle I (RCRA Subtitle I) to the Solid Waste Disposal Act and, four years later, rolled out the underground storage tanks (USTs) program.

At the time, 2.1 million tanks were buried nationwide. Today, there are 571,000. A 52% reduction isn’t insignificant, but Congress wasn’t satisfied. It took one-quarter of a century, but EPA recently updated the program to close regulatory gaps.

Instead of requiring that equipment be replaced, the new program focuses on properly operating and maintaining existing systems by:

  • Eliminating deferrals for emergency generator tanks, airport hydrant systems, and field-constructed tanks
  • Requiring secondary containment for new and replaced tanks and piping, operator training, and periodic operation and maintenance
  • Allowing the use of new release-prevention and -detection technologies
  • Updating codes of practice and state program approval requirements to incorporate the new changes.

According to this comparison of the 1988 and 2015 requirements, some compliance items have to be done within three years. Several, however, require immediate attention.