More than 35,000 petroleum leaks have been reported in Ohio since the state began monitoring underground storage tanks in the mid-1980s, and about 12 percent of them are still in need of cleanup years or even decades later.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: Hazmat accidents and risks in Ohio
Ohio has a current backlog of about 4,300 active cases, according to the Ohio Bureau of Underground Storage Tank Regulations.
Most of them involve vacant properties — an old gas station or abandoned factory — where an owner can’t be tracked down to take responsibility for the testing, cleanup and monitoring of a suspected or confirmed leak.
“We do not have a responsible party to address those situations,” said Verne Ord, BUSTR assistant bureau chief.
It could be because the company has gone out of business, declared bankruptcy or the owner may have died, he said. In some cases they simply can’t afford the cleanup.
Without someone to take responsibility, the case sits open, sometimes for decades.
Nearly three quarters of the 48 active cases in Clark County involve leaks detected between 1988 and 1999.
“If you’ve got one that’s that old, it’s been either a really bad petroleum release that’s taken years to remedy, or we don’t have a viable, responsible party,” Ord said.
In 12 of the Clark County cases a responsible party can’t be identified and another nine involve owners who can’t take financial responsibility for some reason.
About half of Champaign County’s 23 open cases have been open longer than 15 years and about half involve non-viable owners.
It’s another example of the government not having the resources to monitor or enforce laws that protect drinking water, she said.
“This is a concern to all of us,” said Marilyn Welker, president of the local environmental group People for Safe Water.
It’s not uncommon for sites to go well beyond five years to get cleaned up, said Scott Sigler, a BUSTR corrective action supervisor. But the Ohio bureau has a better clearance rate than other states, he said.
“We’ve closed a lot of tanks,” Ord said. “We’re second or third in the country.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors underground storage tanks, leaks and cleanups nationwide and keeps stats on each state’s backlog. The federal agency doesn’t include closed tanks that are simply awaiting final reports, so its tally of Ohio’s active cleanups is closer to 2,100.
Ohio has more than 21,000 active underground storage tanks currently holding more than 193 million gallons of gasoline, diesel, kerosene and other oils. Clark County currently has more than 2.3 million gallons of fuel and other liquids in underground storage tanks.
The tanks typically sit under gas stations, hospitals, airports and manufacturing facilities and are used to fuel vehicles, emergency generators and more.
A lot of progress has been made nationwide to catch up with the backlog of leaking tanks, according to the EPA’s most recent report. More than 1.8 million tanks have been properly closed since 1984. And 86 percent of the more than 500,000 releases have been cleaned up.
Ohio’s clean-up rate is even better — 92 percent, according to EPA data.
“We close out approximately 600 releases a year,” Ord said. “If you look at the rest of the country, we’re one of the better programs at doing that.”
The Midwest is the birthplace of the automobile, the gas station and the underground storage tank, he said. Ohio’s role in the auto industry led to a proliferation of underground tanks that the state continues to deal with today.
Only seven states have more active tanks than Ohio and only eight have more closed tanks. Ohio is second in the nation in terms of the number of petroleum releases reported and the number of clean-ups completed, behind only California in both categories.
From 2010 to 2013, a one-time influx of money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 lead to an increased cleanup effort.
The EPA received $200 million and Ohio got about $8 million to address more than 50 brownfield sites statewide that needed cleaning before they could be redeveloped.
Although it’s not a designated brownfield, some activists in the South Fountain Historic District are hoping the opportunity to clean up and redevelop an old gas station in their neighborhood will be coming soon.
The former Standard Oil station at the corner of South Fountain and Grand avenues has been on Ohio’s active case list since 2008, when a land assessment discovered petroleum concentrations in the soil and ground water that exceeded state standards.
The fuel tanks have been gone for decades, as far as the owner Ben Babian knows.
He’s the president of South Fountain Preservation Inc. and along with neighbor Basil Fett, they purchased the property to make sure it’s used in a way that will benefit the neighborhood.
They, and the Neighborhood Housing Partnership before them, tried to find someone interested in the property, but the inability to dig on it restricted how it could be redeveloped.
“What can you do with blacktop? A car lot?” Babian said.
In the meantime, BUSTR investigators determined that BP is responsible for any cleanup. They sent a letter to the company in June.
“Hopefully BP is contacting (the owners) real soon to get access to clean up their property. That will make it a little bit more marketable or turn it into some green space,” Sigler said.
It usually speeds the remediation process when a large oil company is the responsible party, Ord said, because they have the resources. Individuals with small businesses often find the cost overwhelming.
The state has made money available to local governments that own property with tanks in need of removal through a revolving loan program, but no one has applied for the 2015 cycle, Ord said.
Even for a large organization like Mercy Health Partners, the cost of dealing with a leak can escalate quickly.
It has three underground tanks at Mercy Memorial Hospital in Urbana, and in August a routine test revealed the fuel level inside a 1,000-gallon tank for the emergency generator was lower than expected.
“It hadn’t lost very much at all,” said Bob Jenkins, director of plant operations and environmental services at the hospital. Mercy reported a suspected leak, drained the tank and began the process of removing it.
When the tank was half dug up, crews discovered the issue wasn’t with the tank but with a fuel line coming from it. They repaired the line, but the entire process took weeks and cost thousands, Jenkins said, including for a temporary tank for the generator.
The case will remain open until all necessary soil testing is completed, but Jenkins said the results so far have been within safe limits.
The South Fountain soil contamination hasn’t moved very far from the property it’s on, Ord said, and most small leaks don’t go very far.
But some can pose an immediate threat to ground water and local wells.
On Sept. 4, 2014, the Speedway gas station on the west side of Main Street in New Carlisle reported a leak from one of its tanks.
Neither agency nor Speedway could say how long the tank had been leaking or how much fuel had been released, but they contained the leak quickly.
The sense of urgency was real because the store is right on the line of the city’s protected water area.
“Each one of our drinking water wells has a 300-foot radius around it,” that the city protects closely, New Carlisle Director of Public Safety Howard Kitko said. “They’re right near the edge.”
The spill was contained to Speedway’s property and a year later, the cleanup is progressing.
“They are recovering product as we speak,” Sigler said. “They are installing soil borings and monitoring wells to evaluate.”
All the liquid petroleum has been recovered, Kitko said, who gets monthly reports from the company doing the work. The city has had no issues with contaminated water, he said.
“That is something that is going to continually be evaluated throughout this assessment,” Sigler said.
In the meantime, Speedway has started renovating that store and plans to replace all of the tanks.
“We are pleased to report that the remediation efforts and subsequent results to date have been successful and are progressing as anticipated,” Communications Manager for Marathon Petroleum Corp. Stefanie Griffith said. “We have started construction activity on our new store and look forward to serving the New Carlisle community for years to come.”
Leaks from newer tanks are much less likely, according to Ord and Sigler, and can be detected and remedied early. Most are made of fiberglass or coated plastic instead of bare metal or a coated steel.
Sensors produce electronic readouts so owners can check their fuel levels daily and be alerted to any product present outside of the tank.
The New Carlisle case is one that could be open for years as constant monitoring will be done to ensure no contamination remains, Sigler said.
Not all leaks a threat
Just because a case is open, though, it doesn’t mean a lingering health or environmental threat exists, regulators said.
“Active doesn’t mean that there’s tanks still in the ground, or that there is petroleum in the ground either,” Sigler said. In some cases, tanks might have been removed decades ago, but no one submitted a closure report to the state.
One case involving a former gas station on Ohio 29 in Mutual has been open since 2004 when a possible leak was detected. All the tanks there were removed in 2006, Sigler said, but the status remains active because the owner hasn’t done a closure report.
If there is a real threat to a water supply, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies can step in to take care of the issue even if an owner can’t be located.
“For emergency situations like that, or really big situations that are identified, we have other agencies that help out,” Ord said.
BUSTR also can refer cases to the Ohio Attorney General for legal action, he said, but tries to work with owners first.
There are times, however, that a leak isn’t identified quickly because no one is monitoring a tank.
Operators are supposed to monitor their tanks at regular intervals and the state has nine inspectors that work on a three-year cycle. But the EPA reports only 68 percent of Ohio facilities with underground tanks are in full compliance with leak prevention and detection standards.
“In some of the situations you’ll notice petroleum in a nearby stream or petroleum vapors in a storm or a sanitary sewer and the fire department may be contacted,” Sigler said. “That’s how we know of some of these if an owner-operator is unaware of a release.”
Ord said most facilities that are labeled as out of compliance when inspectors show up can be brought into compliance quickly. He said they usually have all the right tools in place, they just might not be using them or something may not be working properly.
Although there are likely many fuel tanks across the state that have been forgotten or abandoned, Ord said almost 100 percent of the former gas stations in Ohio have at least had the tanks emptied.
“Most owners are willing to empty the tank because that’s kind of like leaving dollars in the tank,” Sigler said.