Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Cleanup needed for leaks in underground gas tanks

By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service

LANSING – More than a decade ago, an underground storage tank at a former service station in Fraser was found releasing gasoline, which contaminated nearby soil, air and potentially groundwater.

Despite the long passage of time, neither the station operator nor the state has investigated or cleaned the site. State officials estimate that it will cost $100,000 to determine the extent of contamination and more money is needed for remediation.

It is among 456 sites with leaking underground tank in Macomb County that need cleaning up, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

There are more than 9,000 sites known statewide. Among the top 10 counties with the most sites are Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Kent and Berrien.

The site in Fraser may be taken care of if the legislature extends the 5-year-old Refined Petroleum Fund that is scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2010.

The money comes from a seven-eighths cent per gallon tax on gas station operators.

The state used the proceeds to clean leaking underground storage tanks when there are no responsible owners of companies that are legally liable or can afford to pay, said Sen. Dennis Olshove, D-Warren. They’re called “orphan sites,”

The fund takes in about $50 million to $60 million per year.

A bill by Olshove to extend the collection of the fee through Dec. 31, 2012, passed the Senate unanimously and is pending in the House.

Olshove said he’s positive that the House will approve it by the end of the year.

Nearly half of the sites across Michigan are orphan sites and need the money for cleanup, he said.

There is reason to worry if the money runs out, experts say.

That’s because chemicals from the underground leaks, such as lead and benzene, can contaminate the soil and groundwater and creating public health hazards according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,

Sharon Goble, a DNRE leaking underground storage tank specialist, said Michigan is particularly vulnerable because nearly half its residents rely on groundwater for drinking, especially in rural areas and the Upper Peninsula.

It costs the state an average of $400,000 to clean up a site, she said.

“If they don’t pass the bill, we wouldn’t have any public fund in the future to address any additional need to clean up orphan sites,” Goble said.

But gas station owners don’t want the fund extended because they can’t use the money for their own cleanups.

Mark Griffin, president of the Michigan Petroleum Association – Michigan Association of Convenience Stores, said, “We clean up sites out of our pockets.

“The only way we could access that fund is after we go bankrupt and our locations become orphan sites,” he said.

Gas station operators and the Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group, blame the state for not using the entire fund to clean contaminated sites.

Robert Nowinski, chief of administration section at DNRE’s remediation division, said less than half of the yearly proceeds has been used for cleanups.

DNRE estimates that the fund will generate more than $55 million this year, but only about $20 million is earmarked for the program.

Nowinski said the money has been diverted to other programs, such as state office building leases, fish contaminant monitoring and information technology for the department.

That’s because the state doesn’t have enough general tax dollars for those programs, he said. “But $20 million is not enough for cleaning up the leaking tanks.”

In fact, Goble said the state has severely underfunded the leaking underground storage tank program since the mid-1990s.

The state had the Underground Storage Tank Financial Assurance Fund in the early 1990s, which paid owners about $625 million to clean their sites before it was replaced by the Refined Petroleum Fund in 1995, according to the DNRE.

“Michigan hasn’t had a stable long-term state fund to reimburse operators since then,” she said.

A temporary reimbursement program between 2006 and 2009 helped operators remediate some high-risk sites.

Goble said only two states – California and Florida – have more leaking tanks than Michigan, but they spend about $200 million, 10 times what Michigan’s does.

Griffin said he hopes the state will redirect the entire fund to the program if it’s extended.

Cosponsors were Democratic Sens. Liz Brater of Ann Arbor; Gilda Jacobs of Huntington Woods; Hansen Clarke of Detroit; Tupac Hunter of Detroit; Raymond Basham of Taylor; and Martha Scott of Highland Park; and Republican Sen. Patricia Birkholz of Saugatuck.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Environment

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