The state gave owners of underground fuel storage tanks 19 years to replace or close old tanks that could spring leaks and contaminate soil and groundwater. But many dragged their feet, thoughtlessly putting the environment and the public at risk. Now time's up, and those still in violation should be smacked with the toughest penalty available.
In 1991 the state announced that single-wall storage tanks and pipes had to be replaced by double-wall tanks and pipes, or the tanks had to be emptied and closed. Tank owners had until Jan. 1, 2010, to comply. It turns out 19 years wasn't enough notice for some. When the deadline passed, a state database still listed almost 4,700 tanks out of compliance, including nearly 600 in the Tampa Bay area. Among those on the Tampa Bay list, according to the state, were gas stations and fuel distributors, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, All Children's and Bayfront hospitals, marinas and school district facilities.
While violators were thumbing their noses at the state, the steel tanks were rusting and the potential for leaks was rising. When the state decided nearly two decades ago to require double-wall tanks, it already was dealing with widespread soil and groundwater contamination from leaking fuel tanks. A massive cleanup of contaminated sites began in the mid 1980s and was so expensive that lawmakers increased the state gas tax to pay for it. The state hoped to put an eventual end to the problem by requiring the sturdier double-walled tanks.
It wasn't just cost that was a problem. There also was the potential for real harm to the environment and the public. Gasoline and other fuels contain chemicals that can poison groundwater. The chemicals, if they migrate in sufficient amounts to drinking water supplies, can raise the risk of cancer, kidney failure and nervous system disorders. That is particularly a risk in Florida, which relies heavily on underground sources such as the Floridan Aquifer for drinking water.
Because the tanks are buried, slow leaks may not be detected for years. In 1992, the city of Gulfport learned its underground diesel fuel tanks were leaking only when it dug up the tanks to replace them. A monitoring well near the site showed contamination. In 2006, Hernando County discovered that the aquifer beneath the county public works yard was polluted with benzene and other chemicals. A consultant said the benzene likely came from a leaking underground fuel tank. The same could be happening now beneath the 4,700 noncompliant tanks on Florida's list, and no one would know.
The tank owners may not care, but the public and state regulators should. The state plans to give the recalcitrant owners until March to replace or close their tanks, then fines of up to $10,000 per day can be levied. If state law and concern for the environment and the public didn't motivate these tank owners, perhaps stiff fines will force them to take care of a problem that should have been handled years ago.