Unearthing pollution problem

Buried fuel tanks: After 10 years, owners should upgrade containers or close them down.

January 22, 1999

TENS OF thousands of underground bombs are strewn across the nation, with grave potential for our water supplies. They are old motor fuel storage tanks -- at gas stations, municipal governments, farms and other locations -- that threaten to leak dangerous chemicals into the ground-water that supplies half the nation with drinking water.

Ten years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered owners of pre-1989 underground tanks to upgrade or replace them, or shut them down. The deadline came last month.

Most large service stations have converted. But many smaller operators have not because of the high cost. And just this week it was reported the city of Baltimore would have to pay up to $250,000 for emergency fuel supplies because several of its tanks don't meet the new standards. A three-tank service station pays $150,000 or so; a single new tank on a farm costs $25,000.

Because of the substantial cost, some believe this is an economic class issue. They argue that the EPA is forcing out of business the owners least able to pay. That is untrue. Tank operators have had 10 years to prepare (and save) for the changeover. States set up low-cost loan funds. Those for whom tank conversion was uneconomical could close them.

Clean drinking water is too precious to spoil, to poison with toxic and carcinogenic compounds seeping from corroded tanks. It can take years before a water supply is purged of deadly contamination. Too many communities have felt this grim reality to dismiss leakage as an infrequent incident.

The Maryland Department of Environment has told 1,400 owners of tanks to document their compliance or close. Other, unknown tanks are also out there. Months of field surveys are required to assure tanks meet the law, and enforcement should be strict. Gasoline and water don't mix.

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