Statement of Senator Lincoln D. Chafee
Regarding the Underground Storage Tank Compliance Act of 2001
Pascoag, Rhode Island
February 25, 2002
Good morning. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is conducting today=s field hearing to examine issues surrounding leaking underground storage tanks and the impact that they have on communities. This hearing will also focus on the Underground Storage Tank Compliance Act of 2001, which I introduced in December. Anyone who has followed the situation in Pascoag will understand the severe impacts that can occur when underground storage tanks leak and go undetected. While we are working at the federal, state, and local levels to bring assistance to you, it is my hope that your experiences will help foster policy changes that will prevent this type of crisis from reoccurring.
People affected by the gasoline additive known as MTBE frequently ask how it reached their water systems. In 1990, Congress passed a law to require that gasoline be mixed with additives to make it burn more cleanly. This reformulated gasoline is used in areas that do not meet clean air standards. In the Northeast, MTBE was the most common additive. While it made significant improvements to our air, we learned the hard way about the devastating effects it can have on groundwater if gasoline storage tanks leak.
Let me briefly discuss the actions that the federal government has taken to address underground storage tanks. In 1984, Congress enacted a comprehensive program to address the problem of leaking tanks. This was in reaction to the discovery of groundwater contamination in different parts of the country and its linkage to underground tanks. In fact, Rhode Island played a leading role in formulating that debate. A 1983 60 Minutes report about leaking tanks in Canob Park in Richmond increased the nation=s awareness about this widespread problem.
The 1984 law imposed minimum federal requirements for leak detection and prevention standards for underground tanks. In 1988, owners and operators of existing tank systems were given ten years to upgrade, replace, or close tanks that didn=t meet minimum federal requirements. As the deadline passed in December, 1998, many underground storage tanks failed to meet the federal standards to prevent spillage, overfilling, and corrosion.
As Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, Risk and Waste Management, I was concerned about the potential problems regarding tanks. To assess the situation, I asked the U.S. General Accounting Office to examine compliance of tanks with federal requirements. Last May, GAO concluded that approximately 76,000 tanks have never been upgraded to meet minimum federal standards. In addition, GAO found that more than 200,000 tanks are not being operated and maintained properly. GAO cited infrequent tank inspections and limited funding among the contributing factors.
In order to assist communities that are grappling with these problems and to prevent such problems from reoccurring, I introduced the bipartisan Underground Storage Tank Compliance Act. It requires the inspection of all underground storage tanks every two years and for the first time focuses on the training of tank operators. It simply does not make sense to install modern, protective equipment if the people who operate them do so improperly. The bill also provides the federal government and States with the tools necessary to ensure that all parties are meeting federal standards. In addition, the legislation emphasizes compliance of tanks owned by federal, state, and local governments, and provides $200 million for cleanup of sites contaminated by MTBE.
While my bill solely addresses the tank situation, there is a separate effort ongoing in Congress, which I support, to permanently ban the use of MTBE in gasoline. Last September, I voted for a bill in the Environment Committee that would ban the use of MTBE, while maintaining the clean air benefits that it has provided. My underground storage tank bill is independent from that effort because, even if we get MTBE out of the gasoline, we must still fix the tanks so that ordinary gasoline does not spoil our environment.
I am looking forward to the testimony of our witnesses. I am very grateful that the town has been pro-active and willing to share its problems in order to promote solutions. It is a model for solving our problems, and I assure you that I will bring your experiences and advice back to Washington as we continue to find answers to these pressing questions. The Canob Park story in 1983 opened our eyes to the problem at the beginning, but the MTBE crisis in Pascoag has taught us that our work is not done.