oversight

Environmental Protection: Recommendations for Improving the Underground Storage Tank Program

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-03-05.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                             United States General Accounting Office

GAO                          Testimony
                             Before the Subcommittee on Environment
                             and Hazardous Materials, Committee on
                             Energy and Commerce, House of
                             Representatives
For Release on Delivery
Expected at 1:00 p.m., EST
Wednesday, March 5, 2003     ENVIRONMENTAL
                             PROTECTION
                             Recommendations for
                             Improving the Underground
                             Storage Tank Program
                             Statement of John Stephenson, Director, Natural Resources
                             and Environment




GAO-03-529T
                                                March 5, 2003


                                                ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

                                                Recommendations for Improving the
Highlights of GAO-03-529T, a report to the      Underground Storage Tank Program
Subcommittee on Environment and
Hazardous Materials, House Committee
on Energy and Commerce




Nationwide, underground storage                 GAO estimated in its May 2001 report that 89 percent of the 693,107 tanks
tanks (UST) containing petroleum                subject to UST rules had the leak prevention and detection equipment
and other hazardous substances                  installed, but that more than 200,000 tanks were not being operated and
are leaking, thereby contaminating              maintained properly, increasing the chance of leaks. States responding to
the soil and water, and posing                  our survey also reported that because of such problems, even tanks with the
health risks. The Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), which
                                                new equipment continued to leak. EPA and the states attributed these
implements the UST program with                 problems primarily to poorly trained staff. While EPA is working with states
the states, required tank owners to             to identify additional training options, in December 2002, EPA reported that
install leak detection and                      at least 19 to 26 percent of tanks still have problems.
prevention equipment by the end of
1993 and 1998 respectively. The                 EPA and states do not know how many upgraded tanks still leak because
Congress asked GAO to determine                 they do not physically inspect all tanks. EPA recommends that tanks be
to what extent (1) tanks comply                 inspected once every 3 years, but more than half of the states do not do this.
with the requirements, (2) EPA and              In addition, more than half of the states lack the authority to prohibit fuel
the states are inspecting tanks and             deliveries to problem tanks—one of the most effective ways to enforce
enforcing requirements, (3)                     compliance. States said they did not have the funds, staff, or authority to
upgraded tanks still leak, and (4)
EPA and states are cleaning up
                                                inspect more tanks or more strongly enforce compliance.
these leaks. In response, GAO
conducted a survey of all states in             As of September 2002, EPA and states still had to ensure completion of
2000 and issued a report on its                 cleanups for about 99,427 leaks, and initiation of cleanups at about another
findings in May 2001. This                      43,278. States also face potentially large, but unknown, future workloads in
testimony is based on that report,              addressing leaks from abandoned and unidentified tanks. Some states said
as well as updated information on               that their current program costs exceed available funds, so states may seek
program performance since that                  additional federal support to help address this future workload.
time.
                                                Compliance With Federal Operations and Maintenance Requirements Varies Among States



To address the problem of leaking
tanks, GAO suggests that the
Congress consider:
    • Providing states more
        funds from the UST trust
        fund so that they can
        improve their training,
        inspections, and
        enforcement efforts;
    • Requiring EPA and the
        states to inspect tanks at
        least every 3 years; and
    • Providing EPA and the
        states additional
        enforcement authorities.
www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-529T.

To view the full testimony, click on the link
above.
For more information, contact John
Stephenson at (202) 512-3841.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am here today to discuss our work on the nationwide problem of leaking
underground storage tanks (UST) and the recommendations that we made
to address this problem in our May 2001 report on the Environmental
Protection Agency’s (EPA) tank program.1 As you know, studies show that
tanks leaking petroleum products and other hazardous substances
contaminate the soil or water supplies and can pose health risks, such as
nausea and kidney damage, as well as a costly cleanup burden. Since our
original report, we have continued to examine and update EPA program
data and responses to our recommendations, along with other
information. This examination shows that while the agency has taken a
number of corrective actions, the problems that we identified in May 2001
persist and have yet to be comprehensively resolved.

In 1984, the Congress created the UST program to protect the public from
potential leaks from the more than 2 million operating tanks located
across the nation, mostly at gas stations. Under the program, EPA required
tank owners to install new leak detection equipment by the end of 1993
and new spill-, overfill-, and corrosion-prevention equipment by the end of
1998. If these conditions were not met, owners had to close or remove
their tanks.

EPA has authorized 32 states to implement the program with agency
oversight and monitoring, while 16 states operate their own program
under their own laws with limited EPA oversight. To help states
implement their programs, EPA provides all states funding (about $187,000
per state). In addition, EPA retains direct authority over a small number of
tanks primarily located on Indian tribal lands. In 1986, Congress created a
trust fund to help EPA and the states cover tank cleanup costs that owners
and operators could not afford or were reluctant to pay. The fund is
replenished partly through a $.001/gallon tax on gasoline and other fuels.
At the end of fiscal year 2002, the fund had a balance of about $1.9 billion.

Because the states are primarily implementing the provisions of the
program, we conducted a survey of all 50 states and the District of
Columbia in the fall of 2000 to determine the extent to which tanks comply



1
 U.S. General Accounting Office, Environmental Protection: Improved Inspections and
Enforcement Would Better Ensure the Safety of Underground Storage Tanks, GAO-01-464
(Washington, D.C.: May 4, 2001).



Page 1                                                                GAO-03-529T
    with program requirements, how EPA and the states inspect tanks and
    enforce requirements, and whether upgraded tanks still leak. We based the
    findings of our report, which we are discussing today, primarily on the
    survey and our visits to three EPA regions with the largest number of
    tanks to monitor. In addition, since the release of our report, we have
    updated our findings and reviewed states’ progress in cleaning up tank
    releases. In summary, we found that:

•   About 89 percent of tanks that states monitor had the required leak
    prevention and detection equipment installed, according to our estimates
    at the time of our 2002 survey. EPA data at the time indicated that about
    70 percent of the tanks its regions managed on tribal lands had the
    required equipment, although not all regions could even attest to the
    location of all tanks on these lands to ensure they had been updated.
    Furthermore, we estimated that almost 30 percent of the tanks—more
    than 200,000—were not being operated and maintained properly, thus
    increasing the chance of leaks and posing health risks. For example, 15
    states reported that leak detection equipment was frequently turned off or
    improperly maintained. For these and other reasons, states reported that
    leaks persisted even in the tanks with the required equipment installed. In
    December 2002, EPA reported that 19 to 26 percent of the nation’s
    underground storage tanks still have operational problems, although
    agency program managers think these numbers are understated because
    of inconsistent reporting from the states. EPA is working with the states to
    develop an accurate baseline of all tanks that are not in compliance. Both
    EPA and the states attribute operational and maintenance problems
    primarily to poorly trained staff. We recommended that EPA regions work
    with each of the states in their jurisdiction to determine specific training
    needs and ways to meet them. In response, EPA has been working with
    states and contractors to develop less costly training opportunities, such
    as Internet-based training. We also suggested that the Congress consider
    increasing the amount of funds it appropriates for states from the trust
    fund and allow them to spend a limited portion on training.

•   While EPA and the states have evidence that tanks continue to leak, they
    cannot determine the full extent of the problem because some of them do
    not physically inspect all tanks. In fact, at the time of our survey, over half
    of the states were not inspecting all of their tanks frequently enough to
    meet the minimum rate recommended by EPA —at least once every
    3 years, and only one of the three regions that we visited met this rate. In
    addition, 27 states lacked the authority to prohibit fuel deliveries to
    stations with problem tanks—one of the most effective tools for ensuring
    compliance with program requirements—and relied instead on issuing
    citations and fines to violators. States said they did not have the available


    Page 2                                                             GAO-03-529T
                         funding, staff, or authority to conduct more inspections or more strongly
                         enforce tank compliance. We recommended that EPA negotiate inspection
                         goals with each state. While EPA has not yet set such inspection goals, it
                         has been working with states to use third-party inspectors and other
                         options to increase their inspection coverage. We also suggested that the
                         Congress may want to (1) consider increasing the amount of funds it
                         appropriates from the trust fund and allow states to spend a limited
                         portion on inspections and enforcement, (2) authorize EPA to require
                         physical inspections of all tanks on a periodic basis, (3) authorize EPA to
                         prohibit fuel deliveries to non-compliant tanks, and (4) require states to
                         adopt this enforcement authority.

                     •   States still face a considerable workload in ensuring that contamination
                         from leaking tanks, including those that leak MTBE, is cleaned up, and
                         that funding is available to address these cleanups. As of September 30,
                         2002, states and EPA regions had to ensure the completion of ongoing
                         cleanups for about 99,427 leaks and initiation of cleanups for another
                         43,278. States also face a potentially large, but unknown, future workload
                         in addressing releases from both abandoned tanks that have not been
                         identified and inactive tanks that have been identified but not removed. In
                         addition, in a June 2002 Vermont Department of Environmental
                         Conservation survey of state funding programs,2 nine states reported that
                         they did not have adequate funding to cover their current cleanup program
                         costs. Therefore, in the future, some states may need to seek additional
                         federal support when they turn their attention to addressing the many
                         unidentified abandoned tanks nationwide that have no financially viable
                         owners or operators to pay for cleanup, as well as increasing and costly
                         cleanup of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).


                         Based on state responses to our survey, we estimated that nearly 617,000,
Most Tanks Have          or about 89 percent of the approximately 693,000 regulated tanks states
Been Upgraded, but       manage, had been upgraded with the federally required equipment by the
                         end of fiscal year 2000. In comparison, EPA data at that time showed that
Many Are Not             about 70 percent of the total number of tanks its regions regulate on tribal
Properly Operated        lands had been upgraded, but the accuracy of this data varied among the
                         regions. For example, one region reported that it had no information on
and Maintained           the actual location of some of the 300 tanks it was supposed to regulate
                         and therefore could not verify whether these tanks had been upgraded.



                         2
                          Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, A Summary of State Fund Survey
                         Results (June 2002). The Department conducts this survey annually.



                         Page 3                                                               GAO-03-529T
Even though most tanks have been upgraded, we estimated from our
survey data that more than 200,000 of them, or about 29 percent, were not
being properly operated and maintained, increasing the risk of leaks.
EPA’s most current program data from the end of fiscal year 2002 show
that these conditions have not changed significantly; tank compliance
rates range from an estimated 19 to 26 percent. However, program
managers estimate these rates are too high because some states have not
inspected all tanks or reported their data in a consistent manner. The
extent of operational and maintenance problems we identified at the time
of our survey varied across the states, as figure 1 illustrates.




Page 4                                                        GAO-03-529T
Figure 1: Compliance With Federal Equipment Requirements Varies Among States (total active tanks per state)




                                        Note: EPA implements the federal tank program in Idaho and enforces certain requirements in New
                                        York because these states lack some or all of the necessary laws.




                                        Page 5                                                                            GAO-03-529T
Some upgraded tanks also continue to leak, in part because of operational
and maintenance problems. For example, in fiscal year 2000, EPA and the
states confirmed a total of more than 14,500 leaks or releases from
regulated tanks, with some portion coming from upgraded tanks. EPA’s
most recent data show that the agency and states have been able to reduce
the rate of new leaks by more than 50 percent over the past 3 years.

The states reported a variety of operational and maintenance problems,
such as operators turning off leak detection equipment. The states also
reported that the majority of problems occurred at tanks owned by small,
independent businesses; non-retail and commercial companies, such as
cab companies; and local governments. The states attributed these
problems to a lack of training for tank owners, installers, operators,
removers, and inspectors. These smaller businesses and local government
operations may find it more difficult to afford adequate training, especially
given the high turnover rates among tank staff, or may give training a
lower priority. Almost all of the states reported a need for additional
resources to keep their own inspectors and program staff trained, and 41
states requested additional technical assistance from the federal
government to provide such training.

EPA has provided states with a number of training sessions and helpful
tools, such as operation and maintenance checklists and guidelines.
According to program managers, the agency recognizes that many states,
because of their tight budgets, are looking for cost-effective ways of
providing training, such as Internet-based training. To expand on these
efforts, we recommended that EPA regions work with their states to
identify training gaps and develop strategies to fill these gaps. In addition,
we suggested that the Congress consider increasing the amount of funds it
provides from the trust fund and authorizing states to spend a limited
portion on training.




Page 6                                                            GAO-03-529T
                        According to EPA’s program managers, only physical inspections can
Most States Do Not      confirm whether tanks have been upgraded and are being properly
Meet EPA’s              operated and maintained. However, at the time of our survey, only 19
                        states physically inspected all of their tanks at least once every 3 years—
Recommendation to       the minimum that EPA considers necessary for effective tank monitoring.
Inspect All Tanks       Another 10 states inspected all tanks, but less frequently. The remaining 22
                        states did not inspect all tanks, but instead generally targeted inspections
Every 3 Years or Have   to potentially problematic tanks, such as those close to drinking water
the Enforcement         sources. In addition, one of the three EPA regions that we visited did not
Tools Needed to         inspect tanks located on tribal land at this rate. According to EPA program
                        managers, limited resources have prevented states from increasing their
Identify and Correct    inspection activities. Officials in 40 states said that they would support a
Problems                federal mandate requiring states to periodically inspect all tanks, in part
                        because they expect that such a mandate would provide them needed
                        leverage to obtain the requisite inspection staff and funding from their
                        legislatures. Figure 2 illustrates the inspection practices states reported to
                        us in our survey.




                        Page 7                                                           GAO-03-529T
Figure 2: Frequency of Inspections Varies Among States (total active tanks per state)




                                         Note: EPA implements the federal tank program in Idaho and enforces certain requirements in New
                                         York because these states lack some or all of the necessary laws.




                                         Page 8                                                                            GAO-03-529T
While EPA has not established any required rate of inspections, it has been
encouraging states to consider other ways to increase their rate of
inspections, for example by using third-party inspectors, and a few have
been able to do so. However, to obtain more consistent coverage
nationwide, we suggested that the Congress establish a federal
requirement for the physical inspections of all tanks on a periodic basis,
and provide states authority to spend trust fund appropriations on
inspection activities as a means to help states address any staff or
resource limitations.

In addition to more frequent inspections, a number of states said that they
needed additional enforcement tools to correct problem tanks. As figure 3
illustrates, at the time of our survey, 27 states reported that they did not
have the authority to prohibit suppliers from delivering fuel to stations
with problem tanks, one of the most effective tools to ensure compliance.
According to EPA program managers, this number has not changed.




Page 9                                                          GAO-03-529T
Figure 3: Many States Lack Authority to Prohibit Fuel Deliveries to Problem Tanks (total active tanks per state)




                                          Note: EPA implements the federal tank program in Idaho and enforces certain requirements in New
                                          York because these states lack some or all of the necessary laws.


                                          EPA believes, and we agree, that the law governing the tank program does
                                          not give the agency clear authority to regulate fuel suppliers and therefore


                                          Page 10                                                                           GAO-03-529T
                        prohibit their deliveries. As a result, we suggested that the Congress
                        consider (1) authorizing EPA to prohibit delivery of fuel to tanks that do
                        not comply with federal requirements, (2) establishing a federal
                        requirement that states have similar authority, and (3) authorizing states to
                        spend limited portions of their trust fund appropriations on enforcement
                        activities.


                        At the end of fiscal year 2002, EPA and states had completed cleanups of
States Have Made        about 67 percent (284,602) of the 427,307 known releases at tank sites.
Progress in Cleaning    Because states typically set priorities for their cleanups by first addressing
                        those releases that pose the most risks, states may have already begun to
Up Leaks but Still      clean up some of the worst releases to date. However, states still have to
Face a Potentially      ensure that ongoing cleanups are completed for another 23 percent
                        (99,427) and that cleanups are initiated at a backlog of 43,278 sites. EPA
Large Workload;         has also established a national goal of completing 18,000 to 23,000
Some May Need           cleanups each year through 2007. However, in addition to their known
Federal Funds to Help   workload, states may likely face a potentially large but unknown future
                        cleanup workload for several reasons: (1) as many as 200,000 tanks may be
Address It              unregistered or abandoned and not assessed for leaks, according to an
                        EPA estimate;3 (2) tens of thousands of empty and inactive tanks have not
                        been permanently closed or had leaks identified; and (3) some states are
                        reopening completed cleanups in locations where MTBE was subsequently
                        detected.

                        This increasing workload poses financial challenges for some states. In the
                        June 2002 Vermont survey of state funding programs, nine states said they
                        did not have adequate funding to cover their current program costs, let
                        alone unanticipated future costs. For example, while tank owners and
                        operators have the financial responsibility for cleaning up contamination
                        from their tanks, there are no financially viable parties responsible for the
                        abandoned tanks that states have not yet addressed. In addition, MTBE is
                        being detected nationwide and its cleanup is costly. States reported that it
                        could cost more to test for MTBE because additional steps are needed to
                        ensure the contamination is not migrating farther than other contaminants,
                        and MTBE can cause longer plumes of contamination, adding time and
                        costs to cleanups. If there are no financially viable parties responsible for
                        these cleanups, states may have to assume more of these costs.



                        3
                         Report to Congress on Compliance Plan for the Underground Storage Tank Program,
                        U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA 510-R-00-001, June 2000).



                        Page 11                                                               GAO-03-529T
           In closing, the states and EPA are taking steps to address the tank
           problems that we have identified, but they still cannot ensure that all
           regulated tanks have the required equipment to prevent health risks from
           fuel leaks, spills, and overfills or that tanks are safely operated and
           maintained. Many states do not inspect all of their tanks to make sure that
           they do not leak, nor can they prohibit fuel from being delivered to
           problem tanks. Finally, a number of states do not have adequate funds for
           their programs now, and more of them may face financial challenges in the
           future as they address leaks from abandoned tanks and leaks that contain
           MTBE. We have suggested a number of ways that both EPA and the
           Congress could help correct these problems and better ensure the safety
           of public health.

           Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to respond
           to any question you or Members of the Subcommittee may have.

           Contact and Acknowledgments

           For further information, please contact John Stephenson at (202) 512-3841.
           Individuals making key contributions to this testimony were Rich Johnson,
           Eileen Larence, Gerald Laudermilk, and Jonathan McMurray.




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           Page 12                                                        GAO-03-529T