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Underground gasoline tank rules cost station owners thousands

December 23, 1998

Gas tanksBy DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Owners of convenience stores and service stations were grumbling over new federal regulations Tuesday on how their gasoline can be stored underground.

They complain the strict regulations will force them to make thousands of dollars in improvements to their underground tanks, and it will take up to a year to recover from the costs.

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Ellis Costello, who runs the George Street 76 in Charles Town with his father, said it will cost him $65,000 to replace the four underground tanks at his station.

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"How are you going to make that up on gas? You don't," said Costello, who is planning to sell his station.

In Waynesboro, Pa., Charles S. Pulaski opened the Sunoco station at 402 East Main St. that bears his name in 1964. At 63, he said he's too old to make the estimated $120,000 investment it would take to pull up his gas tanks and replace them with those that meet the new government standards.

He planned to stop selling gas at midnight.

"The state is offering stations an interest rate of 5.5 percent, but that would still be $6,200 a year in payments just for interest," Pulaski said. "That doesn't include payments on the principal. I'm too small to afford that."

The deadline for meeting the new regulations was Tuesday, although service station owners in West Virginia got a temporary break.

Gov. Cecil Underwood gave small gas station owners a 60-day extension on the regulations as long as they can prove that they are in the process of making upgrades or have a contract to begin the work. Larger facilities such as airports, fire departments, and school bus garages also got an extension until Feb. 20.

West Virginia officials say substandard gas tanks often represent serious environmental and health hazards. They point to a 1995 flash fire in a Shepherdstown home which they believe was caused by a leaking underground storage tank.

A gas leak at a 7-Eleven store across from the house on W.Va. 45 left about 8,500 gallons of gasoline missing, officials said. Officials believe the gas migrated a block to the home, where there was a small explosion.

"Do you want gasoline coming out in the creek or getting in your water well or basement?" asked Don Martin of the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection.

The regulations, required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, require new double-walled tanks to prevent corrosion and devices to prevent overfilling.

The systems also use electronic sensors to alert business owners of any gas leaks.

West Virginia officials said a handful of underground storage tank operators in the state were affected by the two-month reprieve granted Monday by Gov. Cecil Underwood.

Andy Gallagher, communications director for the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection in Charleston, said federal EPA officials approved the extension. But, he added, most tanks that aren't in compliance now won't be in 60 days. The state estimates 68 percent of underground storage tanks don't meet EPA standards.

Gallagher, however, did not anticipate widespread shutdowns by West Virginia service stations and said it will take "a long time" for the state's seven inspectors to examine the 7,701 tanks across the state.

"We're relying on people to make the switchover and do the right thing," he said. "It may be slow, but we are going to enforce it."

Gallagher added the federal regulations have been in the works for 10 years, so they should not have come as a surprise to anyone.

Violators of the EPA regulations face a $10,000-per-day fine.

Underground storage tank operators were not given any extensions in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

"They've had 10 years. This is not new," said Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment in Annapolis.

Banks estimates 85 percent of the underground tanks in Maryland are in compliance.

Banks said the state would send letters today to about 1,400 owners of an estimated 2,600 tanks asking for documentation of compliance. Operators who cannot produce the paperwork will have six months to formally abandon the tank, said Banks.

April Linton, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in Harrisburg, said 53 percent of the 36,500 tanks in Pennsylvania are in compliance with federal regulations while 21 percent are not. Linton said officials are unsure of the status of the other 26 percent.

Linton said the state will begin inspecting tanks in early 1999 beginning and added the age, size and contents of each tank will determine how soon it is inspected.

- Staff writers Richard Belisle and Bryn Mickle contributed to this story.

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