Thousands of underground petroleum tanks are buried across Florida, endangering the drinking water supply because the state doesn’t make their cleanup a priority or require that nearby residents be alerted. This hidden public health threat has existed for too long and is entirely avoidable. The Florida Legislature should provide more money to clean up these tanks and require public notification of these contaminated sites.
More than 19,000 storage tanks that are no longer in use are scattered across Florida, including more than 1,700 in the Tampa Bay area, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency in charge of cleaning up the mess. The sites include abandoned convenience stores and former automotive repair shops. In the 1980s, the federal government began warning of the health risks associated with underground tanks, leading Florida legislators to establish a trust fund to assess and restore contaminated sites.
The Tampa Bay Times’ Craig Pittman reported Sunday how the effort fell far short of its goal. Lawmakers never set aside enough money for the cleanup program. While about 6,500 sites statewide were undergoing rehabilitation as of November, another 3,000 sites were awaiting work. That figure includes more than 550 sites in the Tampa Bay area, mostly in Pinellas (268) and Hillsborough (260). This work is in addition to the thousands of contaminated sites being cleaned up by private parties, who since 1999, after new regulations were adopted, were made financially responsible for cleaning up their own operations.
A watchdog group comprised of former state, local and federal regulators, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, blames a shortfall of funds and moves by the Florida Legislature in recent years to redirect tank cleanup funds to other purposes. That has led the state to focus its efforts on lower-ranked and less expensive cleanup sites in order to boost the cleanup numbers and "create a facade of progress," the group maintains. DEP denies it is making lower-ranked sites a priority; a spokeswoman noted the agency must obtain access to these sites and negotiate funding agreements for the work, which can affect the schedule.
The point being lost is that all of these tanks should be cleaned up in a more timely manner. With thousands of sites still on the waiting list, there is no excuse for the Legislature to have reduced the appropriations for the cleanup program for the last several years, dropping from $125 million in the 2015-16 budget to $115 million in the current year.
DEP says it cannot estimate what it would cost to complete the work at the remaining sites, given the unique nature of the contamination threat. But with 3,000 sites still on the backlog list and rehabilitation efforts still not complete on 6,500 others, it’s clear the state needs to spend more money. Lawmakers should also require that residents near these sites be notified that a public health threat exists. Now state law only requires notifying property owners that their underground tanks may be leaking. Residents nearby may have no idea that these tanks are present, much less a threat to the water supply. Lawmakers should require DEP to warn all property owners who live within a half-mile of the site of a potential hazard. These are basic safety measures, and they should not have taken decades to accomplish.