Underground tanks could leak fuel
Hundreds need inspections from FEMA
WASHINGTON - The government owns hundreds of underground fuel tanks - many designed for emergencies back in the Cold War - that need to be inspected for leaks of hazardous substances that could be making local water undrinkable.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has known since at least the 1990s that tanks under its supervision around the country could be leaking fuel into soil and groundwater, according to Associated Press interviews and research.
The agency knows of at least 150 underground tanks that need to be inspected for leaks, according to spokeswoman Debbie Wing. FEMA also is trying to determine by September whether an additional 124 tanks are underground or above ground and whether they leak.
There has been no documentation of reported leaks or harm to communities from the FEMA tanks, Wing said, although former agency officials and congressional testimony suggest that the federal tanks have long been seen as a problem.
FEMA says the hundreds of federal tanks have not always been its responsibility. The Federal Communications Commission also has had oversight, although FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said the commission believed FEMA was responsible for monitoring and maintaining the tanks. FEMA said it spent $8 million in the 1990s removing and repairing some of them.
FEMA now acknowledges that it is the agency responsible for all of the tanks in question. Its list includes four sites in Massachusetts: one each in Lawrence and Springfield and two sites in Boston.
Many were built to store 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel and placed around the country at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s to fuel electric generators that could sustain emergency broadcasts by radio stations in case of a nuclear attack or other catastrophe. Made of steel, the tanks inevitably rust over time and allow fuel to escape.
Steel tanks left in the ground for decades get holes like Swiss cheese, said Pat Coyne, director of business development for Environmental Data Resources Inc.
In the late 1980s and early '90s the government insisted on better-made tanks. The underground tanks of today must have safety measures including leak detection and an extra shell made with material resistant to gasoline, diesel, and ethanol, Coyne said.
The FEMA tanks are part of a larger problem. More than 500,000 leaking storage tanks - most of which are filled with fuel and oil - are buried across the country, according to Environmental Data Resources, based in Milford, Conn. That is about half of all the underground tanks in the country, the consulting company says. Those tanks are owned privately or by local, state, or federal agencies.
Because they are underground, leaking tanks can go undetected for years. If diesel leaks into drinking water, affected people could be at a higher risk of cancer, kidney damage, and nervous system disorders, said Rochelle Cardinale, one of the lead coordinators for underground tank cleanup in Iowa. A gallon of fuel can contaminate 1 million gallons of water.
Senate testimony from 1992 suggests FEMA has long tried to avoid having to deal with the tanks.
"For years FEMA resisted acknowledging the problem or seeking funds for remediation," former FEMA union president Leo Bosner said in 1992 before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.
He said then there were more than 2,000 underground oil storage tanks that FEMA had paid for or acquired over the years. But FEMA came out with a legal opinion that year concluding that it wasn't responsible for the tanks.
Congress eventually decided it didn't matter which agency owned the tanks - FEMA would fund tank inspection, removal and replacement, said Bill Cumming, who at the time ran FEMA's ethics program.
FEMA did receive reports of leaking tanks, said Jane Bullock, who was the agency's chief of staff in the Clinton administration.
Many of FEMA's out-of-use fuel tanks have not been inspected because officials only recently finished going through decades of paperwork from the different federal agencies that at one point participated in the emergency broadcasting program.
"We are committed to upholding our obligations to remediate, remove, or upgrade them as necessary," FEMA spokesman Dan Stoneking said. "We believe in adhering to any relevant environmental rule or law and will do so."
FEMA disclosed the problems to the EPA in August 2007, a step that could lead to reduced penalties against FEMA. In May, the EPA formally requested information about the status of the tanks.
FEMA said it now oversees 1,129 defunct tanks - including the hundreds that could be leaking - many of which were inherited from the FCC and the Civil Defense Preparedness Agency.
FEMA would not provide the exact location of the tanks.