Storing hazardous substances underground in the United States

Jonathan Brun

Back in 2015, the environmental protection agency made changes to their rules intended to prevent leakage of gasoline and other hazardous substances from underground storage tanks. These rules hadn’t been updated since they were made back in 1988. Now the deadline to comply with these changes is coming up in a few weeks. So we had Kathy Mckinney, Tovar, senior analyst with specialty technical consultants to break down the chain just for you. .

Una Jefferson: So the final compliance deadline is coming up for these amendments that were made to the environmental protection agency’s regulations for underground storage tanks. These regulations are for storage tanks that store gasoline and other hazardous materials, intended to keep them out of groundwater and from generally contaminating the environment. But before we get into the nitty gritty of these changes, what is the intent of these amendments that were made in 2015 and how would you say that that intent compares to the intent of the original regulation which was made in 1988?

Kathy McKinney: Well, in order to have the best understanding of how the 2015 amendments impacted 1988 regulation, I’ll start with the 1988. Those regulations actually required that equipment be put in place to reduce and prevent releases to the environment. Up until that point in time, there hadn’t been such a requirement. Now the 2015 changes actually added additional requirements to ensure that owners and operators maintain their equipment to keep it working properly to prevent releases. Because what they found in the interim was that they were probably about 6,000 tanks a year that were leaking in spite of the 1988 regulations. So to put in to implement these new requirements, the EPA for an example, which had previously required spill prevention equipment to capture drips and spills when the delivery hoses disconnected from the fall pipe, had not required periodic testing of that equipment to make sure that it was liquid tight. The requirements of 2015 are actually implementing testing requirements for that equipment.

Una Jefferson: So it sounds like the 2015 amendments are almost closing a loophole. Is that fair to say?

Kathy McKinney: I do think it’s fair to say. I think with the 1988 amendments, there was a lot of belief that they would actually solve the problems. And it really did make a big improvement, but it didn’t completely eliminate them because people just were not properly maintaining their equipment.

Una Jefferson: It does sound like there was a huge effect from the original regulations. The numbers I found on the EPA’s website said that there were over 2 million underground storage tanks at the start of the program in 1984. And it sounds like most of them had been closed and many, many more upgraded. So what types of operations today will be affected by these updated regulations?

Kathy McKinney: So one of the things that’s going to apply is that in all of the Indian country within the United States, regardless of the state where these tribal lands are, these regulations will go into into effect. Also, in the 2015 regulation, there were several types of UST systems that were actually deferred from the 1988 UST regulation. And with these 2015 amendments, the EPA is actually now implementing regulations that they have to comply with. So for example, emergency generator tanks that are not part of the facility that are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, must now meet released detection requirements. That’s something that they were not required to do prior to that time.

In addition, field constructed tanks and airport fuel distribution system must also meet additional requirements. Now the field constructed tanks are primarily going to be found at military bases. They’re not going to be found at regular gas stations. The airport hydrant fuel distribution systems are actually only going to apply to a very small subset of airports out there because it’s only going to apply to about eight or nine large airports in the United States. So in addition, some of the other tanks that had been deferred from the UST regulations in 1988 have also now become regulated by requiring that they continue to meet not only the corrective action and release response requirements that applied to them, but also installation requirements and those tanks are the wastewater treatment tank systems that are not covered under section 402 or 307b of the Clean Water Act, USTs containing radioactive materials that are regulated under the Atomic Energy Act and USTs that are part of an emergency power generation facility that are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Una Jefferson: So for people who do have underground storage tanks to which these changes apply, what do these people need to worry about for the compliance deadline that’s coming up for October 13th? You mentioned some of these points, but if you could just summarize.

Kathy McKinney: So there are a number of things that facilities need to think about with this approaching date of October 13th. First of all, they must train their operators to prevent releases. They also need to install release detection on existing UST systems that store fuel solely for use by emergency power generators. And then in addition, there are a number of operational requirements that apply. So the spill prevention equipment must be tested for the first time as of October 13th and the first inspection of overfill prevention equipment must also take place by that date. The EPA has created a new sub-part K for existing airport hydrant system and the field constructed tanks and those requirements are going to include release detection, upgrades, operating requirements, and operator training requirements. Now, it’s kind of important to note that if the UST system was installed after October 13th, 2015, then it must meet that still prevention equipment testing, the overfill prevention equipment inspections, by the date that equipment was installed.

So what I’m talking about here is just equipment that was existing prior to that October 13th, 2015 date. In addition, facilities must also begin to annually test their still detection equipment. They must do monthly walkthrough inspections of their spill prevention equipment and release detection equipment and they must conduct an annual walkthrough inspection of their handheld release detection equipment. And as I mentioned a short while ago, these requirements are only going to apply in Indian country and also in states that do not have a program that has been adopted by the EPA.

Una Jefferson: Okay. So it sounds like these are mostly kind of operational requirements rather than facility related requirements. Does that sound like a fair assessment?

Kathy McKinney: I think it’s going to be a combination of both. I think detection will require the implementation of new equipment that hasn’t been there up until this point in time, but yes, there are definitely be plenty of other operational requirements like the operator training and just general operating requirements.

Una Jefferson: You’ve been in environmental consulting for a very long time, maybe almost as long as this program has been around and I’m wondering, in general, to what extent do the new operational requirements for inspection and training and maintenance, how do these differ from current practices?

Kathy McKinney: Well, actually within current practices, there has been a requirement to have spill prevention equipment such as spill bucket, but there hasn’t been testing that has been required to ensure the integrity of the steel bucket. Similarly, released detection equipment was also required under the 1988 UFT regulation, but it didn’t have to be tested regularly to ensure that it was operating properly and will detect a release quickly. Also, overfill prevention equipment was previously required but it didn’t have to be inspected regularly to ensure that it would activate properly and notify the delivery person that the tank is nearly full. So that just kinda gives you an idea that, really a lot of this equipment was in place, but that the operating requirements just weren’t there or the owners and operators weren’t thinking about maintaining that equipment.

Una Jefferson: It seems like there may be some other aspects of these changes that are already in place. For example, some people who have underground storage tanks might look at new requirements in the 2015 amendments for operator certification for example, and think like don’t they need to do that? You wrote an article about the 2015 amendments where you explained that some of these changes aren’t actually new. Could you just describe why that is?

Kathy McKinney: I think you have to go back to the Energy Policy Act of 2005. That act actually contained provisions that were related to UST that required states that received funding to help pay for the cleanup of leaking underground tanks to implement those requirements. And those requirements included operator training as an example. Now states that didn’t want to adopt those requirements, were going to lose their funding. Since I believe nearly every single state out there received funding to help pay for the cleanup of leaking underground tanks, you can imagine that yeah, they were very willing to adopt these requirements. So the requirements that came in under the Energy Policy Act, including the operator training, have actually been in effect now for a number of years. States adopted those requirements, and I see that a number of states have actually been requiring the operators to be trained to be since about 2012.

Una Jefferson: And you mentioned state adoption. Of course, one of the big aspects of this underground storage tank program is that maybe because it’s got such a huge scope, a lot of states were given the option they could receive approval to make their own underground storage tank regulations. So people who are in states that have received approval to make their own regulations, do they need to worry about the 2015 changes that we’ve been discussing.

Kathy McKinney: They actually do not need to be so concerned with those changes because of the fact that their states have approval from the EPA to operate their program in lieu of having to comply with the federal program. So whatever the state regulation says is what facilities in these states need to do. Now, there are 12 states that do not have approval from the EPA programs in lieu of the federal programs and within those states, which include Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, facilities that are in those states actually had to comply with the deadlines that were established in the 2015 regulations. So the facilities in those days actually have to comply with two sets of regulations instead of just the one set for those 38 states that have approval from the EPA .

Una Jefferson: And in the states that do have approval, can we expect any changes to state regulations to kind of bring them into line with the EPA changes?

Kathy McKinney: So as part of the 2015 amendments, these states actually required to modify their regulations to come into compliance with these federal regulations and they were required to reapply to the EPA for approval to operate their state programs by October 13th. Now it’s kind of interesting that a number of these states are not going to meet that requirement, but the EPA says you should still continue to operate with those requirements that are in the state because they understand it in some cases it’s not easy for states because of the way that the regulations are written in their particular states to implement these changes as quickly as the EPA would have liked them to. So the EPA will work with them. So right now there are actually 29 states and territories in the US who have actually revised their regulations to incorporate all of these new changes that are as a result of the 2015 amendments.