WASHINGTON — Gasoline, oil and other contaminants that threaten groundwater are seeping from more than 70,000 underground tanks around the country, but the federal aid that has helped address the problem could soon start drying up.
The Trump administration is proposing to slash funding for the Leaking Underground Storage Tank program by nearly half next year — from nearly $92 million this year to about $47 million in 2018. The recommended cut in the LUST program is part of the president’s proposal to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency budget by 31% next year.
Funding for LUST is a drop in the EPA’s $8.2 billion budget. But state officials, environmental activists and public health advocates warn that the size of the cut carries great risk considering groundwater is the source of drinking water for nearly half of all Americans.
They say such a reduction would hamper monitoring, prevention, enforcement and cleanup of leaks as well as the important role EPA plays in providing technical assistance to state regulators and businesses, many of them gas stations, who have aging tanks and piping under their sites.
In a letter earlier this year to congressional leaders, the head of the trade organization representing state solid waste agencies said the cut would impede the long-term progress states have made on inspection and cleanup.
The program “has made great strides in increasing the number of compliant tanks in the last 25 years, which has resulted in fewer releases,” wrote Dania Rodriguez, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials. “Loss of program funding would reverse this trend.”
The Trump administration announced the proposed cut in May, two months after the Department of Veterans Affairs officially recognized the harm contaminated water — some of it linked to underground fuel tanks — inflicted on hundreds of thousands of marines stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from 1953 through 1987.
Under the VA program announced in March, those who served at least 30 days in Lejeune during that period are eligible for treatment of eight diseases, including several cancers and Parkinson’s Disease.
There are 558,451 active tanks located in about 201,000 sites nationwide, according to the EPA's most recent tally.
Most are service stations, but they also include any operation where fuel is stored underground such as government fleet garages, large retail operations like Costco stores that sell gas, and institutions like hospitals or universities that store fuel to power emergency generators.
“Across the country, thousands of underground storage tanks and accompanying pipes — many of them made from older, corroding steel — hold and carry a variety of fuels and chemicals,” the Environmental Defense Fund wrote in a recent report. “When tanks leak harmful chemicals such as oil, gas, benzene and toluene into soil and ground water, drinking water and soil are fouled, community health is jeopardized, and economic development is crippled.”
The number of tanks with confirmed releases hit a high in 1995 with nearly 172,000. But the backlog of sites needing to be cleaned up has been declining since 2000, according to EPA records. As of March 31, EPA reported 70,094 tanks with confirmed leaks. Some of these are not actively leaking, but have residual contamination that needs to be cleaned up.
Florida leads the list of states reporting the most leaking tanks with 10,421, followed by Michigan (8,000), Illinois (5,733), New Jersey (5,100) and North Carolina (4,006).
Site owners are ultimately liable for cleanup costs, but a taxpayer-funded trust fund is in place when sites must be addressed quickly, are abandoned or when owners don’t have the resources. The fund is financed by a 0.1 cent per gallon tax on gasoline, which generated $202 million in 2016.
Administration officials did not offer much explanation for the cut, one of dozens proposed in the EPA budget.
“Historically the (underground tank) program has worked closely with our state, territorial, and tribal partners,” an agency spokeswoman wrote in an email. “We know they are on the front lines to protect our land and groundwater from petroleum leaks, such as those from gas stations and other (underground storage tank) facilities, and we expect this partnership will continue to be a hallmark of the program.”
She wrote it would be “premature for us to speculate” about EPA’s budget given that Congress has yet to finalize the agency’s funding for next year. The House Appropriations Committee voted in July to restore almost all of the funding for the program, but neither the full House nor the Senate has acted yet.
The cost of cleaning up a site depends on a variety of factors, including the extent of contamination and state cleanup standards. The average cleanup is estimated to cost $130,000 but can rise to over $1 million if groundwater is infected.
Ben Thomas, a former tank inspector and state regulator in Alaska who now consults with private operators on meeting the inspection rules, said cutting the program would hurt businesses that have come to “appreciate the heavy stick of enforcement for bad players (and) the general community outreach.”
Slashing a program known for the collaboration between regulators and businesses and the effectiveness it’s achieved in reducing the backlog of leaking tanks would be crippling, he said.
“At some point, such a deep cut makes any agency effectively non-responsive,” Thomas said. “There’s simply not enough money to know what to prioritize. Stuff that makes a big stink like enforcement would probably get cut (as would) the ability for states to maintain a hotline, maintain a web page or do workshops. I could easily imagine all that stuff would be kind of viewed as frivolous and go away because it’s not core statement message stuff.”