Opinion/Editorial (741 words)
25 for 25: New Hampshire's Underground Storage Tank Program– An Unseen Success Story
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
In recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, over the course of the year, I will highlight 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the second in the series, relates to the DES Underground Storage Tank Program.
Twenty-five years ago, when the Department of Environmental Services (DES) was first formed, we couldn’t see them, but there were over 12,000 underground storage tanks (USTs) in the ground in New Hampshire. Virtually all of them were bare steel, single-walled tanks, with no corrosion protection. Some of them had been in the ground since the 1950s, or even earlier. Not surprisingly, many of them were not in very good shape – they had rusted over time and regularly leaked their contents of gasoline, diesel, or fuel oil. Those leaks were contaminating our soil, our groundwater, our rivers, lakes, and streams, and in many cases, our drinking water supplies. Cleanups, where possible, were protracted and expensive. If you were the unlucky owner of one of these facilities, you faced an uncertain future. For many small business owners, the costs of proper tank closure and replacement combined with the high cost of soil and groundwater cleanup amounted to a threat of financial ruin. This resulted in a drain on the state’s economy, and the abandonment and underutilization of previously valuable properties.
With these conditions reaching a critical stage, definitive action was required. New Hampshire’s successful approach was to address both the environmental and the economic problems directly. On the environmental front, state rules, bolstered by emerging federal requirements, emphasized release prevention and closure or upgrade of substandard tank systems. On the economic front, the NH Legislature established the Oil Discharge and Disposal Cleanup Fund (ODDCF), which was funded by a small import fee on motor fuels and provided vital funding to address releases and ensure that contaminated sites would not be abandoned.
In 1985, New Hampshire adopted its first UST regulations, which established a tank replacement schedule for older tanks and required secondary containment for new tank installations. In 1988, federal UST regulations further required that unprotected tanks either be upgraded with cathodic protection (a form of corrosion protection) or closed by 1998, and that new tank systems be either double-walled or that the owner provide financial assurance in the amount of $1 million per release for cleanup and third-party damages. DES worked aggressively to encourage early tank closures. As part of its “Don’t wait until ‘98” campaign, DES urged tank owners to accelerate removal of these risky tanks. This campaign was tremendously successful. Of the 12,000 known, unprotected steel tanks, only about 1% of them remained out of compliance by 1999. And by 2001, all of those tanks had been removed.
In 1990, recognizing that even compliant tank systems posed a risk of release, New Hampshire required that tank owners both maintain the federally-mandated financial responsibility for releases, and provide secondary containment for new tanks. But rather than imposing an unbearable burden on tank owners, this requirement was met by the ODDCF, which became operable that same year, serving as a secondary insurer for tanks that were in compliance. This combination of requiring first-rate tank installations and reliable funding for cleanups has put New Hampshire in the forefront nationally in addressing the UST problem. This approach protects small businesses from financial ruin while at the same time providing superior environmental protection.
In 1997, New Hampshire moved an important step further by setting a 2015 deadline to require permanent closure of all USTs that do not have secondary containment and leak monitoring; and requiring all new piping to be double-walled. We have a total of about 500 tank systems that need upgrading by 2015 under this requirement and we are optimistic that all systems will achieve compliance by that date. So, now in just a few years, ALL tank systems (the tank and associated piping) will be double walled and have leak monitoring. This is a monumental improvement over the conditions that existed in 1987, when unprotected bare steel, single-walled tanks were the norm.
So where were we, and where are we now? Remember, 12,000 unprotected bare steel tanks in 1987. Now, in 2012, we have no known unprotected tanks, and are less than three years away from all New Hampshire tank systems meeting state-of-the-art standards. And perhaps the most telling statistic: In 1993, our worst year ever, there were 245 reported releases from USTs. Last year, there were just 11. And those few releases were associated with tank closures, not operational failures of compliant tanks.
While it remains unseen, New Hampshire’s UST program is a 25-year story of success in providing vital protection of our precious water resources and our state’s economic health.
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