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High-risk underground fuel tanks in Florida await cleanup as state spends millions on easy fixes

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times An abandoned gas station located at 4449 Grand Boulevard in New Port Richey, Fla., is pictured Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. The underground fuel storage tanks are serious pollution concerns, including danger of drinking water contamination.
Published Jan. 6, 2018

Scattered across Florida are 19,000 underground petroleum storage tanks that are no longer in use and may be leaking into the aquifer, the state's drinking water supply.

State records show that 738 of them are in Pinellas County, 792 in Hillsborough, 101 in Pasco and 61 in Hernando.

Most people who live near them don't even know they are there, or that they might be polluting their water. State law doesn't require anyone to warn them.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, in charge of cleaning up the mess, was originally supposed to work on the highest-priority sites first, those posing the greatest threat to human health.

But at the direction of lawmakers and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, that's no longer the case.

Instead, the DEP has been targeting lower-priority sites, according to documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and shared with the Tampa Bay Times.

Sites are scored by DEP officials, and the higher the score, the bigger the threat.

There's a site in Pasco County that scored an 80, one of the highest ratings on the list. The site was a Farm Store at 4449 Grand Blvd. in New Port Richey. It's been on the DEP list since 1999 and still isn't clean though it has a known leak.

But a state contractor was busy with cleanup work last year at another Pasco site, a former Firestone at 5425 U.S. 19 in New Port Richey that had scored only a nine.

In Pinellas, there are sites that rank as low as six that are listed as active cleanup sites, along with one that ranked as high as 95.

Meanwhile 16 sites ranked at 25 or higher are still waiting for any action. In Hillsborough, a site that ranked 55 — a Spur station at 3101 W Hillsborough Ave. — remains on the waiting list, while sites ranked as low as five or six are on the active cleanup list.

"You would think they would want to clean up the higher priority sites first," said Jerry Phillips, a one-time DEP attorney who heads PEER, the group that pulled the records and is made up of former local, state and federal environmental agency employees.

DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel said the agency remains "focused on cleaning up contaminated sites as effectively and efficiently as possible."

In creating a fund to pay for the cleanup nearly three decades ago, the Legislature specifically said that the DEP should emphasize "addressing first the sites which pose the greatest threat to human health and the environment."

But in 2015, with Scott's blessing, the Legislature modified the law to allow the agency to target lower-priority sites for cleanup and closure, and made $15 million available for that purpose.

The DEP did not push for the change, Engel said. When asked if the agency under Scott opposed it, her e-mailed reply said only that the DEP "remains committed to protecting the environment and public health, and to implementing the laws of Florida."

She said the agency's efforts continue to lead to "great progress of high-scoring sites, as well as lower-scoring sites."

But according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures, Florida has more underground tanks awaiting cleanup than any other state.

"That's their history in a nutshell — Florida has always been the most behind schedule for cleaning them up," said Linda Young, who runs the environmental group Clean Water Network.

The storage tanks were part of old gas stations or convenience stores that are now long gone.

In the early 1980s, the federal government began warning about the risks associated with underground tanks nationally and said state and local governments should clean them up. They can leak several contaminants that pose a risk to human health, including benzene, a carcinogen.

Florida legislators considered what they called the "LUST bill," short for "leaking underground storage tanks," some giggling over the acronym.

In 1986, they created the Inland Protection Trust Fund to pay for the DEP to investigate, assess and restore contaminated petroleum sites.

However, lawmakers have never set aside enough money to cover the cost of cleaning them all up.

Phillips' PEER group has criticized legislators for repeatedly siphoning money from the pool and using it to plug holes in other parts of the state budget.

Engel with DEP said that the state has overseen the cleanup of 6,000 high priority sites. And she said the priority numbers don't necessarily tell the whole story.

For instance, she said, the Farm Store in New Port Richey that scored an 80 did get a cleanup — but then the DEP discovered it was still leaking. That's why the site was put back on the list as one that's still awaiting work.

However, a legislative report issued earlier this year found that in three decades DEP had so far addressed only 9,000 total sites statewide — fewer than half.

The Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association did not respond to calls seeking comment on the lack of progress or limited notice to neighbors.

Engel acknowledged that state law requires only notifying the owners of property that have underground tanks about the pollution they are causing.

However, she said that if contaminants are detected migrating off the property, then surrounding residents would be told about it.

She said that part of the process of assessing the threat posed by each site includes requiring the state Department of Health to "survey all registered public supply wells within one-half mile and private water supply wells within ¼ mile radius."

She said that anyone who wants to know whether his or her home is near one of the sites should check the DEP website. However, Phillips says the DEP website is difficult to search and use, especially for anyone not already familiar with the cleanup program.

PEER is pushing for a new state law requiring the DEP to notify all property owners who live within a half-mile of a storage tank site of the potential risk to their health.

So far, no legislators have shown any interest in filing that bill.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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