The Deep Impact of Tanks

Jan. 15, 2007

About the author: Cliff Rothenstein is director for the EPA’s Office of Underground Storage Tanks. He can be reached at 703/603-9900 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Water is life, and everyone needs clean drinkable water to sustain life. Drinking water sources, however, can be vulnerable to contaminants from a variety of sources. The task of protecting drinking water from contaminants is challenging as well as critical to public health and a safe drinking water supply.

Across the U.S., more than 270 million people receive their drinking water from 161,000 public water systems. Groundwater is the drinking water source for nearly 50% of the U.S. population, or about 147 million people. One of the greatest potential threats to groundwater is contamination from leaking underground storage tanks (USTs) that usually contain petroleum products. These tanks are found in every community and can be as close as the nearest gas station. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one out of every four USTs may be leaking.

Locating leaking underground storage tanks

It is estimated that as many as 200,000 abandoned gas stations nation-wide are impacted by petroleum leaking from underground storage tanks. Moreover, about 650,000 active underground storage tanks are found to be near drinking water sources. Reducing the risk to drinking water sources presents opportunities to form partnerships to make the best use of resources for protecting public health and the environment.

While the number of abandoned UST sites is overwhelming, the land they occupy is ripe for redevelopment. Cleaning up these sites can also protect precious water resources; however, they can be difficult to find.

About two years ago, EPA’s Office of Water and the Office of Underground Storage Tanks signed a memorandum endorsing collaboration with states to share resources. This set in motion a number of agreements at both the federal and state levels. These agreements forged coordinated efforts focused on sharing data, maps and resources to identify tanks that may pose a threat to drinking water supplies.

Once these tanks are identified, EPA and state regulators are encouraged to make them a priority for compliance inspections. States and EPA regions have made progress toward identifying underground storage tanks that could potentially affect drinking water sources. Over the next few years, EPA will be working with additional states to increase the focus on source water protection.

EPA is also working with states to increase the number of memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and other actions to formalize collaborative cooperation between parties at federal and state levels. As an official way of defining future coordination, EPA and states can lead the way in the development of MOUs that specifically target joint activities for source water protection.

Increasing tank inspections

Many EPA regional offices are taking additional steps to monitor the compliance of tanks located near source water areas. Inspections need to be increased to help ensure that these tanks do not leak and potentially contaminate valuable groundwater resources. Regions are working with state partners to target tanks near source water areas.

Source water assessment data is being used to identify high-risk public drinking water supply systems to target their tank compliance and enforcement actions. Collaboration is a key component to helping accomplish this goal.

Employing latest technology

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can help locate tanks that are placed near source water areas. EPA regions and states have included this tool as part of their inspection procedures for USTs that pose significant threats to drinking water supplies. Many states are developing GIS databases that will be used in the near future.

Several EPA regions have used GIS systems to target their UST inspections in source water areas. Some programs have formalized their cooperation with MOUs, while others have been working to strengthen and form new relationships between their USTs and water programs. Outreach efforts are underway in many areas to raise awareness of this public health issue.

Corroded tank parts or improper installation can cause petroleum leaks or spills. The failure of piping systems, sloppy fuel deliveries, and improper operation and maintenance can contaminate the surrounding soil and groundwater. EPA strongly encourages states to continue to better protect public health by focusing on the compliance of USTs located near source water. Some of these actions include targeting inspections of tanks in source water areas and providing education and outreach to the public and other stakeholders.

The EPA tanks program is in the process of conducting a pilot project with the water program and 10 to 12 participating states and tribes. This project will include mapping tanks and source water data for information sharing, prioritizing inspection and cleanup as well as enforcement. EPA is working to collect data from state participants and public sources. The state tanks data and source water assessment data collection is expected to be completed by the end of 2007.

It is crucial to take advantage of this opportunity to collaborate and combine resources to address the challenges presented by USTs threatening drinking water sources. Cross-program coordination is critical to helping EPA meet its source water protection and UST cleanup goals. By 2008, the agency aims to minimize the public health risk for 50% of the nation’s community water systems and to significantly reduce the number of USTs to be cleaned.

Revitalizing communities

Cleaning up tanks at sites and revitalizing communities are goals of the underground storage tank program. Since 2003, when petroleum contaminated sites first became eligible for Brownfield Grants, EPA has awarded nearly $90 million for the assessment and clean-up of these sites. Once these petroleum sites are cleaned up, they are ready for redevelopment.

Images of idle unproductive gas stations in communities across the U.S. prompt questions about overcoming the barriers to community redevelopment and environmental protection. The emergence of the “super-highways” during the 1960s and 1970s has not only pushed these communities to the economic sidelines, but also, abandoned gas stations have become an eyesore on the local landscape.

Decades ago, these gas stations were often prime business locations serving travelers’ needs. These forgotten sites are primed to regain prominence within local communities.

One area of the country benefiting from this kind of revitalization is along the Route 66 corridor in the western part of the nation. For more than 40 years, Route 66 operated as one of the country’s main arteries. Unfortunately, by the 1970s, four-lane highways were passing by Route 66.

About two years ago, EPA and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) partnered to explore the opportunities and barriers to redevelopment along Arizona’s Route 66 corridor. Local communities along this strip of highway are beginning to work toward reusing the land that houses these abandoned gas stations.

EPA’s Region 9 and ADEQ worked with stakeholders to look at options for redeveloping small petroleum Brownfield sites along Arizona’s Route 66 corridor. Although some federal dollars are available for clean-up, EPA is encouraging states to coordinate with the local communities to secure additional funding from other sources, such as private developers and other federal and state agencies.

Route 66 is a model for the kinds of projects that EPA envisions can be replicated across the country. The opportunities are limitless, and EPA challenges business and community leaders alike to help recreate the energy and enthusiasm of the Route 66 corridor. Redeveloping and revitalizing communities with old abandoned gas stations can be a significant step in protecting public health and the environment as well as creating economic opportunities.

Protecting source water

Cleaning up abandoned gas station sites involves collaboration from all levels of government, but especially from states’ source water and UST programs. At the national level, EPA Headquarters and Regional Offices are committed to fostering relationships and increasing coordination between UST and Source Water programs.

EPA’s goal is to foster relationships with business and community leaders in America’s hometowns to work toward cleanup, restoration and reuse of petroleum Brownfield sites. A key part of the process is providing assistance to states to clean up orphaned and abandoned tanks so communities can return property to productive uses, such as housing, business and recreation.

So many sites, so much potential

The 200,000 abandoned gas stations nation-wide, found in older, well established communities that were once part of the nation’s main transportation routes, are ripe for redevelopment. Often in prime business locations, these sites are positioned to regain prominence within communities. Potential developers can take advantage of the Community Reinvestment Act that encourages banks to make loans available to those who wish to invest in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

Because the community infrastructure is in place (e.g., water sewer, electricity and often an abandoned building), these properties can easily be reused. Revitalizing these properties in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is an added bonus. Not only is it good for the economy and good for the environment, but it also adds social value and can move a community toward revitalization.

The power in partnerships

It is EPA’s goal to increase cleanup of petroleum Brownfield properties and create a demand for those properties in local communities. Arizona’s Winslow, Holbrook and Joseph City serve as an inspiration to other locales perusing small-scale redevelopment projects at petroleum sites around the country.

The Route 66 partnership employed a five-step process to jumpstart the project.

Forging partnerships. Create an alliance of two or more parties committed to the same goal and share in both the risk and the rewards for all of the partners. At planning or project kick-off meetings, representatives from partnering agencies can begin to discuss ways to work together and to share resources. Both Winslow and Holbrook worked with EPA and others to secure resources.

Redevelopment at many of these sites has been slow, and many abandoned gas stations remain idle; ADEQ and EPA Region 9 have partnered to explore opportnities and reduce barriers to redevelopment. The Exploring Redevelopment Opportunities Project combines both research and communication with various stakeholders to discover viable options for redevelopment along Arizona’s Route 66 corridor.

Facilitating communication. For environmental assessments, cleanup and redevelopment projects, communication is important during every step of the process. Maintaining open lines of communication helps to ensure that public health and environmental concerns are addressed and that communities’ needs are taken into consideration.

Creative use of resources. For many communities, finances may be readily accessible, but for others, finding these resources can be challenging. With some effort, communities can find financial assistance from a variety of sources outside of EPA and state environmental agencies. Funds can be leveraged from tax incentives, state grants, the Real Estate Investment Trust, revolving funds and other federal agencies such as the Small Business Administration and the National Park Service.

Developing a plan. Creating a plan is a critical step in the process. End-use planning is helpful when working on assessment, cleanup and redevelopment activities. By approaching assessment and clean up with an end-use in mind, property owners and developers can determine the level of cleanup needed for the final product. For example, developers may not need the same level of cleanup for a parking lot as for a residential property. From the early stages, Winslow and Holbrook engaged their communities in public meetings and in planning sessions to collaborate on the vision for the project.

Emphasizing the community’s role. Local communities, regardless of size, play a central role in the success of the redevelopment project. While state and federal agencies may provide technical assistance and grants, local governments keep the community informed and involved.

Progress cannot be achieved without first creating a vision. Stakeholders bring a unique perspective to each project and contribute in ways for the group to meet its goal. Route 66 is a model for the kinds of projects that EPA believes can take place across the country. The opportunities are limitless. Successfully cleaning up and redeveloping sites can serve to benefit communities today and future generations.

About the Author

Cliff Rothenstein

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