Testimony of Jan H. Reitsma, Director
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management
On Senate Bill S. 1850
Before the Superfund, Waste Control, and Risk Assessment
Environment and Public Works Committee
United States Senate
February 25, 2002
Good Morning. My name is Jan Reitsma and I am the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning on Senate bill 1850, the Underground Storage Tank Compliance Act of 2001. I would like to begin by recognizing Senator Chafee’s leadership in drafting and introducing this legislation. After the many tank closures and upgrades associated with the December 1998 deadline for corrosion protection, we have entered a new era in operation and regulation of underground tanks. This legislation establishes the criteria and sets the priorities for the next generation of tanks program.
The site of this hearing is also very appropriate. As we all probably know, Pascoag is the site of the most serious case of contamination by methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, in Rhode Island history. The investigation of that contamination uncovered a serious release of gasoline at a facility operating underground storage tanks less than 1700 feet from the sole source of drinking water for the village of Pascoag. From September of 2001 to January 2002, this village endured the hardships of going without potable water and lived with the anxieties that the health of their families was at risk. Through the hard work of many, many people and various government agencies at the local, state, and federal level, a replacement source of water was developed. That battle was won, but the war is far from over. The high levels of MTBE remaining in the aquifer and widespread migration of that contamination into the community will take years and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to clean up.
The use of underground storage tanks is widespread in Rhode Island and across the country. The majority of underground storage tanks are used for the storage and distribution of fuels, including gasoline and diesel fuel. In Rhode Island, there are currently approximately 3318 registered tanks located at 1784 locations.
In 1984, the United States Congress recognized the need to properly operate and maintain underground tanks and added Subtitle I to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In 1986, Congress acknowledged the need to respond to releases from USTs and amended RCRA to establish the leaking underground storage tank trust fund. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgated regulations for the UST program in 1988. Those regulations set forth the technical requirements for tank installation and operation, established requirements for financial responsibility for owners and operators of tank systems, and set the criteria for approval of State regulatory programs. This system set clear ten-year goals for the upgrade of all underground tanks across the country and provided the framework for an effective partnership between EPA and the States, where the States were given discretion and flexibility on the implementation of the program. This delegation model is often cited as an example of how the federal and state programs can work together toward a common goal.
The Rhode Island underground storage tank program was formed in 1984 and originally operated as an extension of the water pollution program. In 1993, the Department promulgated the Regulations for Underground Storage Facilities Used for Petroleum Products and Hazardous Materials that include specific operational requirements and leak and spill response provisions for USTs. Prior to 1993, the Department relied on the authorities in the Oil Pollution Control Regulations, which served as the basis for regulating all oil spills, including leaks from underground tanks.
In 1994, the Rhode Island legislature passed the Rhode Island Underground Storage Tank Financial Responsibility Act. That law established a petroleum clean up account funded by a portion of the tax on gasoline sales to help meet the financial responsibility obligations of tank owners and operators in the state. The Regulations for the Underground Storage Tank Financial Responsibility Fund, which outlined procedures for eligibility and procedures to seek reimbursement, were promulgated in January of 1997.
The partnership between EPA and DEM, and more recently the Review Board for the Underground Storage Tank Financial Responsibility Fund, has been very effective in Rhode Island. Since the establishment of the program, the program has regulated 8,698 underground storage tanks holding petroleum products. Of that number, 6,942, or 80%, have been permanently closed. The remaining tank universe has largely been upgraded to current standards, 98% of the facilities with active tanks in Rhode Island meet regulatory standards for corrosion protection and have leak detection systems.
Federal assistance has been a critical component of this effort. Since 1985, EPA has provided over $3,100,000 in funds to support the regulation of underground tank systems. Fees collected from owners and operators of tank systems have supplemented these funds.
Leaking Tanks in Rhode Island:
Leaking underground storage tanks, as well as other types of spills and releases from these facilities, can cause catastrophic impacts to the environment and the surrounding community. We have all seen and heard the horrible story from here in Pascoag. However, since the start of our underground storage tank program, there have been 1489 releases from underground tanks have been confirmed in Rhode Island. The vast majorities of these releases, 1117, or 75%, have been completely cleaned up. Of the remainder, 112 are subject to ongoing monitoring to ensure that conditions continue to improve. There are currently 369 sites in Rhode Island that either have corrective measures ongoing or require such action.
The impacts of the Pascoag contamination are serious, widespread, and unprecedented in Rhode Island in terms of the impact on people in the community. Over 4000 people were left without a safe source of drinking water for their homes. Rhode Island has had a history of serious releases, however. One of the earliest spills on record occurred in Richmond, Rhode Island and impacted the water supply for the Canob Park community. Groundwater investigations in this community are documented as far back as 1963, with the earliest suspicions of gasoline contamination documented in 1970. This case drew national attention as it was featured on 60 Minutes in November of 1983 as one of the first serious indications of a deeper problem with contamination from leaking tanks. Years later, a major release at the Hendel’s facility in nearby Connecticut seriously threatened one of the water supply wells for Westerly. In 1993, a leak was discovered at the Willie’s Texaco facility on the border of East Greenwich and North Kingstown. That spill threatened major supply wells for the Kent County Water Authority, the Town of North Kingstown, and the Economic Development Corporation’s water supply for the Quonset Point Industrial Park. Fortunately, after great effort and expense, the migration of that contamination was controlled before those water supplies were impacted.
The damage from leaking tanks is not limited to groundwater and water supplies. In 1993, serious leaks at the Coffey’s Texaco facility in Newport and the Duva’s Texaco facility in Providence caused contamination to flow under nearby buildings and into utilities, and vapors seeped up into these structures. In Newport, the historic Newport County Courthouse was temporarily shut down and ventilation systems were installed to control the vapors. At the Duva’s site, a long, difficult battle was waged to control contamination that was seeping into utility lines in the streets At times, the level of gasoline vapors in those lines reached potentially explosive conditions. In Bristol, a family had to be relocated for over a year when gasoline vapors seeped into their basement from the Serpa’s Getty site and in Cranston, a doctor’s office was impacted when vapors migrated from the adjacent Speedy Oil gas station. Unfortunately, we are battling the migration of contamination and vapors in Pascoag now as well. Several structures, including a single-family home, have had vapors from gasoline or the individual constituents, such as benzene, detected inside.
Finally, leaking tanks can seriously impact the quality of our environment and our quality of life. When contamination is detected in a community, the anxiety of the residents rises as people worry about the health and safety of their families. Property values plummet when contamination is detected nearby. Contamination can migrate into our natural areas and destroy their value and beauty. In Warwick, gasoline migrated from the Potter’s Mobil site and contaminated a wetland area in the center of a residential neighborhood. Not only was the value of the wetland diminished, but odors from the contamination caused problems throughout that neighborhood and impacted resident’s quality of life until they were controlled.
The costs responding to these releases are astronomical. Since 1987, EPA has provided over $9,500,000 in federal funding to Rhode Island for response to leaking tanks and support for our leaking tanks program. Since it became operational in 1998, the Rhode Island Underground Storage Tank Responsibility Fund has reimbursed tank owners and operators for $21,248,648 in expenses incurred responding to leaks at 155 facilities throughout the State. We cannot even guess the costs incurred by business in responding to these spills.
Many, many things have changed since the underground storage tank program was first instituted. The nation’s tanks have been upgraded with systems to protect them against corrosion and overfill. Tank systems have leak detection equipment in place and mechanisms are in place to provide financial assurance for response to spills and leaks. Still, leaks are still occurring and we are struggling to identify the resources to respond to major cases like the one here in Pascoag. New upgraded systems are also much more complex and difficult to operate correctly.
We strongly support what we see as the underlying principle of the Underground Storage Tank Compliance Act of 2001, which is to give States greater flexibility to implement the underground storage tank program, particularly by providing more flexibility in the use of funds to do more proactive work on preventing leaks.
We agree with the specific provision that directs EPA to distribute at a minimum eighty percent of the funds appropriated each year from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. It is our understanding that, on average, EPA has distributed more than eighty percent of the funds appropriated from this account to the States. We applaud EPA for taking that approach and believe it has been effective. Based on the partnership I described earlier, the State programs implement the overwhelming majority of the UST program nationally and it is critical that funds go to the States to continue, and expand, this work.
Historically, States, including Rhode Island, have used funding from the Leaking Tank Trust Fund for corrective action and providing core funding for our leaking tank response program. We have continually faced challenges funding our regulatory program to oversee the operation of underground tanks and effectively preventing leaks. We strongly support the new provisions in this bill that allow States to use funds from the leaking tank trust fund to enforce State or local tank leak detection, prevention and other requirements through State or local programs.
The bill also speaks to the allocation process for distributing funds among the States. Rhode Island strongly supports the allocation process currently being used by EPA.
The bill sets a very clear mandate that all USTs regulated under Subtitle I of RCRA be inspected every two years. When we first reviewed this language, we were very concerned that we would not be able to meet this mandate. Preliminary discussions with environmental agencies from other States indicate that we are not alone in this concern. Limitations on staffing and other resources have restricted our ability to inspect tanks in Rhode Island to a frequency of once every six to seven years. While we recognize that this is unacceptable and is not providing the level of protection necessary, we have not been able to build our staff to a level that would allow more frequent inspections. In reviewing this concept over the past few weeks, we believe that an effective alternative may be to license inspectors who conduct the checks and monitoring necessary. We are considering requirements for tank owners and operators to have their tanks inspected by a licensed inspector on a yearly, or biennial, basis and condition operation of the tank system on certification of a satisfactory inspection. We could then use our own resources to audit select stations based on priorities set over time, including risk to water supplies and sensitive natural areas. This is one approach that we are considering in Rhode Island. States have shown a history of being innovators in this program and others and I am sure that many other effective alternatives will also be considered as this bill moves forward. However, for Rhode Island, this will be a very different approach than what is in place right now. We hope the bill will provide flexibility during the transition period when States look to new, innovative ways to meet this goal.
We support the concept of better training for operators of UST systems. We also believe that EPA is well suited to develop guidance on different methods for training operators of underground storage tanks. However, we believe that the guidance should be flexible enough to allow effective and innovative approaches that may be developed by States. Prescriptive requirements on operator training programs may have the unintended effect of stifling innovation and limiting programs to the lowest common denominator. The bill clearly recognizes the challenges that are faced when developing such a training program and any effective program must be fluid enough to respond to the frequent improvements in tank technology. Furthermore, any training program must be clearly understood and under almost continuous implementation given the turnover rate seen in the automotive fueling business. Given these challenges, the States should have maximum flexibility in developing and implementing a program that meets their needs and the needs of their stakeholders.
The bill allows the Administrator to provide an award of up to $50,000 if the State develops and implements a State operator training strategy. We strongly support the concept of a “reward” for innovation and program improvement.
As we are all aware, controlling and removing methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) from the environment after a release is very challenging. Conventional treatment methods, such as pump and treat approaches and vapor extraction, are difficult to implement due to the high solubility of the compound and the limited effectiveness of activated carbon for capturing the material. In Pascoag, we were treating 200,000 gallons of water per day to remove approximately 1,800 parts per billion of MTBE. The health advisory for drinking water is 40 ppb. Costs were much higher than our original estimates based, in part, on the fact that the carbon filtration units were not as effective as expected for removing the compound and needed to be replaced much more frequently. Also, since MTBE is so soluble in water, it migrates away from the source much quicker than other compounds. This increases the area and complexity of the investigation, and drives up the cost. In Pascoag, the plume of contamination is estimated to cover over 13 acres.
We strongly support the provision in the bill that authorizes a one-time appropriation of $200 million for the remediation of MTBE contamination. We also support the recognition that MTBE contamination threatens the welfare of people who may be impacted. While the various health effects of MTBE are under continual discussion, there is no doubt that concentrations near 40 ppb can render water undrinkable. The taste and smell of this contaminant is distinctive and objectionable and, in many cases, provides the secondary standard driving remediation of these sites.
We support the provision in the bill that provides funding to conduct inspections, issue orders, or bring actions under this subtitle. This section of the bill also requires States to submit to EPA a strategy to ensure compliance of tanks owned by State or local governments with the provisions of the subtitle. In Rhode Island, the State has instituted a program to proactively look at tanks owned or operated by State agencies. With municipalities, we have used a mix of compliance assistance tools and enforcement actions to ensure compliance, with varying levels of effectiveness. This section also allows EPA to provide an award of up to $50,000 if the State develops and implements such a strategy. Again, we strongly support the concept of a “reward” for innovation and program improvement.
In conclusion, we all recognize that the underground storage tank program implemented by EPA and the states have made tremendous progress in controlling the threats of releases Bare steel tanks are largely a thing of the past and the majority of tank systems are equipped to protect them from corrosion, detect leaks in a timely manner, and prevent overfilling. However, these new systems are more complex and difficult to operate. If not run correctly, they can provide a false sense of security without the level of protection they are designed to provide.
We strongly support the underlying principle of the Underground Storage Tank Compliance Act of 2001, which is to give States greater flexibility to implement the underground storage tank program, particularly by providing more flexibility in the use of funds to do more proactive work on preventing leaks.
We hope the bill will provide flexibility during the transition period when States look to new, innovative ways to meet all the goals of this bill. States have shown a history of being innovators in the UST program and I am sure that many new and effective approaches will be considered as this bill moves forward.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to comment on this legislation and thank you once again, Senator Chafee, for your leadership on this issue.