Despite 19 years' notice, hundreds of gas stations, governments and businesses failed to upgrade risky fuel storage tanks before a New Year's deadline.
To protect drinking water, the state required owners to upgrade the tanks from single-wall protection to double walls — or permanently close them out.
But that deadline passed with nearly 600 Tampa Bay area tanks still needing upgrades at almost 200 locations, most of them fuel stations, according to a database by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Nearly 4,700 tanks statewide — about 10 percent of Florida's tanks — made the list, despite the risk of $10,000 fines a day. Even an industry push for upgrades that drew in former Gov. Jeb Bush failed to bring all the tanks into compliance.
"I think we gave them too much time," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, saying the issue faded from prominence.
Now the state agency will give owners until March to upgrade or close off the tanks — or face fines starting in April.
Better storage tanks were an offshoot of a late-1980s push to rid the state of thousands of leaking petroleum tanks that cost tens of millions of dollars to repair. Despite some tumult, then-Gov. Bob Martinez and the Cabinet also approved tougher standards for using underground tanks.
Most of Florida's drinking water comes from groundwater that could be harmed by a leaking tank. The requirements are supposed to keep taxpayers from having to pay the cleanup costs after leaks taint soil and water.
Many owners still haven't followed through. Among the most prolific violators, according to the state: Suncoast Oil of St. Petersburg, which has 25 tanks at seven locations designated as overdue. Owners didn't return calls for comment.
"Equipment upgrades have been required for a long time. I warned people, but they didn't believe me," said Pat Moricca, president of the Gasoline Retailers Association of Florida, based in Longwood near Orlando.
Most violators were like Bollinger's Auto Service in St. Petersburg, which has four tanks that didn't meet the deadline.
Owner Ted Baker says he has contracts for upgrades costing $125,000 lined up, but he's waiting for the state to decide whether he can continue selling his calling card, ethanol-free gas. If not, he will close out the tanks.
Not that he blames the state — he knew when he installed the tanks in 1988 the new requirements were coming. He admits he "procrastinated."
"Anybody who wants to blame the state, they've had 20 years," Baker said.
Taxpayer-supported agencies also blew off the deadline.
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit has 11 tanks in Tampa that need to be replaced. Spokeswoman Kathy Karalekas acknowledged the tanks need to be replaced. The agency has contracts to add above-ground tanks and permanently close the old ones, she said.
The agency had considered new tanks as long as five years ago, but HART began trying to fix them after a new maintenance chief was hired a year and a half ago, Karalekas said.
The Hillsborough County school district has six tanks at its transportation and maintenance facilities listed as noncompliant. Schools spokesman Steve Hegarty said new above-ground tanks are being used, and the district has applied for state approval to permanently close the old ones.
The state won't fine owners if they have contracts for upgrades that will be done by March 31, or if they agree to consent orders if they need more time.
The St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and the Pinellas County Jail also turned up with bad tanks.
Keith Grant, the county's fleet management director, said they brought their diesel tanks into compliance in November and December. However, both locations remained on the state's bad list as of last week.
The state said it is possible the county had the work done but had not updated its registration, which would leave Pinellas technically still in violation.
When asked why the county waited so long to get the work done, Grant said it was because the exact specifications of what would be required weren't settled until recent years.
He also blamed the budget crunch the county faced last year.
While the state sent letters and posted notices promising to hold owners to the deadline, Florida's regulators have their own problems.
The DEP acknowledged its list has holes because some tank owners haven't reported upgrades and permanent closures.
One tank contractor, Surge Solutions Group of West Palm Beach, said the state's list seemed to have about a 60 to 70 percent accuracy rate when it went to look for clients, president Ryan Seddon said.
Plus, the state lacks enough inspectors to properly enforce the rule — or the political will, said Young, of the Clean Water Network.
The state has 125 inspectors, including local government employees who work under contract.
A sweep earlier this month narrowed the list of tanks needing upgrading, but only marginally.
Mary Jean Yon, director of DEP's waste management division, said she was pleased with compliance levels so far and defended the agency's ability to enforce the requirements.
"This is our best attempt to find that middle road to not force people out of business," she said.
Upgrades can run up to $300,000, said Moricca, president of the gas retailers group. Coming up with that much money during a recession has been tough for owners, he said.
The DEP also created a list of preapproved contractors to speed the work.
Still, many owners may still be stalling.
"I would say there's a certain percentage (of owners) out there that really are waiting to see what the enforcement is," Seddon said.
That leaves a problem buried underground after improvements were promised decades ago. With the issue faded from public debate for decades, former Gov. Martinez said he couldn't explain why the deadline passed with so many tank failing the state standard.
Some laws, he said, get passed and forgotten.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.