Out of sight, out of mind could land convenience store and gas station owners in serious trouble if they neglect their underground storage tanks (USTs) any longer.
By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.
With fines for leaks on the rise, regulations for tank compliance data retention getting longer and reporting frequencies increasing, the time has come for convenience store operators to pay more attention than ever before to their underground
storage tanks (USTs).
The latest is this: A new proposed rule put forth by EPA in late November is aimed at strengthening the 23-year-old UST technical, financial responsibility and state program approval regulations. The proposed changes include adding secondary containment requirements for new and replaced tanks and piping; adding operator training requirements; adding periodic operation and maintenance requirements for UST systems; adding new release prevention and detection technologies; updating codes of practice; and updating state program approval requirements, the agency said.
Operators who haven’t seen changes yet, soon will, many predict, and should begin planning for it now, especially with the issues involved in offering E15.
No Change Yet
“In my world I haven’t seen a change yet,” said Ed Szalankiewicz, director of gasoline, environmental and maintenance for Handee Marts Inc., a 7-Eleven licensee in Gibsonia, Pa. “I have seen a small change in that I’m getting more correspondence requesting my reports from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Pennsylvania. I’m getting more calls asking for tank reports and other data. They are asking for a lot these days.”
Szalankiewicz, an industry veteran, knows exactly what that indicates. “What it usually means is that some higher-up in their department is saying to them, ‘You need to increase your enforcement,’ so they start asking for reports to show that they’re doing their job. Thus far, everything that we’ve been asked for has been in compliance. I haven’t seen any changes in the field yet, other than a higher level of requests.”
Only 39 of Handee Marts’ 62 locations sell gasoline. Three of its eight stores in the Cleveland market dispense gasoline. There are, Szalankiewicz delineates, some differences in the way Ohio and Pennsylvania conduct inspections and enforce UST regulations.
“In Ohio they do an annual inspection and it is more comprehensive than the Pennsylvania inspection. For example, Ohio requires that tank monitors be certified every year. “We don’t require that in Pennsylvania yet,” Szalankiewicz noted.
Pennsylvania also allows fuel marketers to correct problems before inspectors begin handing out fines. “If you have a leak and you report it, there will not be a fine as long as you deal with it,” Szalankiewicz said. “If it’s not dealt with, then you have a problem.”
Handee Marts recently excavated one of its sites in order to install new dispensers. In the process, workmen found contamination under the islands. The contractor, who is a certified tank installer, immediately reported that fact to the Pennsylvania DEP. The chain immediately started a process of filing prodigious amounts of paperwork to verify what was happening. “Since we took those proactive steps, we were protected from fines,” Szalankiewicz said.
Handee Marts conducts monthly leak detections, even though the official inspection process in the state of Pennsylvania calls for one every three years unless there is a deficit.
“If there is a deficit of any kind in the very extensive inspection process, the DEP will then order an inspection either annually or every two years,” Szalankiewicz said. “They can change the frequency if they feel there is a weakness of some kind.”
Site inspections at Handee Marts locations are conducted by a certified tank installer or inspector. “They come out and look at the tank system completely. They’ll open dispensers and look for leaks there, open sumps and verify that all sensors and tank monitors are functioning properly,” Szalankiewicz said. “In short, they do a very thorough job of examining the composition of the equipment, which is absolutely vital for our industry. During these inspections you can quickly identify the snubbing up of the pipes in a sump pump or whether a pipe has been damaged.”
At the inspection’s conclusion, the company is issued an eight-page document, which is sent to the DEP for review. If any deficits are found through the inspection process, DEP will send the fuel marketer an official notice of violation, which they will then have a limited amount of time to fix.
Looking ahead, convenience store operators can expect more—and more stringent—regulations regarding USTs, a fact that surprises few, if any retailers. One change that is already well underway is the shift to double-walling every part of the gasoline system. “It’s pretty standard in the industry already, but it is becoming mandatory in many markets,” Szalankiewicz said.
Dealing with Renewables
Szalankiewicz’s advice to colleagues could be understood as a warning. “I think the big thing you’re going to have to deal with is that we’re going to be moving to E15, and as we move to E15 nobody’s equipment—tanks, dispensers, lines—is going to be certified for Underwriters Laboratory (UL) approval for E15. UL will approve everything up to E10, but when you go to E15 nothing is approved. Pay attention to the association bulletins about what’s coming down the pike on this.”
In most of the tank indemnification funds or insurance programs one stipulation for an operator that has a leak is that the funds are there to help them conduct a clean up—provided their equipment is UL certified.
“But as soon as we go to E15 nothing is UL certified, and there is a danger that the E15 will soften certain fiberglass tanks,” Szalankiewicz said. “We don’t know what it’s going to do to resins either, so you’re looking at a whole round of tank replacements as we move into the E15 world.”
The cost of such replacements could be staggering, especially in this economy, and would invariably lead operators to the same conclusion.
“I’m personally going to avoid E15 like the plague,” Szalankiewicz insisted. “If I am not forced to use it, I’m not going to use it. If market conditions demand that I do it because there is a five-cent difference—and the government will provide an incentive to make sure the product gets out there—then what I’m going to have to do is do a complete inventory of my systems and on a case-by-case basis start changing out my tanks.”
NACS together with SIGMA, which represents approximately 260 independent chain retailers and marketers of motor fuel, recently shared concerns over the marketing of E15 with government officials.
In a joint statement, the groups noted that the Office of Underground Storage Tanks’ (OUST’s) could do more to help operators of underground tanks alleviate the various environmental, legal and practical impediments to the widespread storage of E15.
“First and foremost, the agency must recognize that unlike E10, underground storage tank system owners are generally unaware if their equipment is compatible with E15,” the groups said. “When combined with the fact that independent testing laboratories are unwilling to retroactively certify legacy equipment for E15 compliance, OUST’s proposed methods for demonstrating compatibility are of limited significance. Further testing of UST owners’ current equipment is necessary to overcome these obstacles, as it would provide them with compatibility information that is currently unavailable.”