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Fuel tank cleanup deadline earlier in basin

B.H. Bose

As local agencies scramble to enforce the cleanup of leaking underground fuel tanks, the Dec. 22 federal deadline for owners to meet current standards rapidly approaches – particularly in the Tahoe Basin where the deadline becomes Oct. 15.

The date could force some tank owners to go out of business.

“If gas station owners and other people don’t upgrade to meet federal laws they will be out of business,” said Lisa Dernbach, associate engineer geologist with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Despite recent furor over the spread of contaminants such as methyl tertiary butyl ether, the new tank deadline has been in effect for years. Owners have known about the deadline for nearly 10 years, Dernbach said.

The federal deadline is still many months off, but owners in the Tahoe Basin have only until Oct. 15. Grading and other major soil disturbances are prohibited during the winter months.

“Upgrading or closing underground storage tanks involves extensive soil excavation and stockpiling,” said Harold Singer, executive officer with Lahontan. “To protect Lake Tahoe water clarity, the Lahontan Basin Plan and TRPA rules prohibit any soil disturbance between Oct. 15 and May 1. So owners and operators of regulated tanks in the Lake Tahoe Basin must comply with the deadline sooner than do others in the nation.”

Many of the tanks in use across the United States were put in place in the 1940s. The tanks are made of steel, which can easily corrode and leak. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated the improvements in the 1980s after studies showed that about half of the hundreds of thousands of storage tanks in the nation have the potential to leak, Dernbach said.

The new standards require original tanks and piping to be retrofitted with corrosion protection and other features that will prevent leaks, or to be replaced with a double-walled system. Installing more sensitive leak detection devices is also required.

Fiberglass tanks have become a popular option to overcome corrosion. While Dernbach said only about 53 percent of the underground storage tanks in California comply with the new standards, many owners in the Tahoe Basin have already installed new tanks. Still, problems are occurring.

“We want to make sure that new tank systems are installed, but the problem now is that some of them are still leaking,” said Dawn Forsythe, South Tahoe Public Utility District’s information officer. “I don’t know if we can change the federal standards, but it doesn’t seem to be working to the benefit of groundwater.”

There are six gas stations in the area responsible for leaking contaminants – namely MTBE – into district drinking water wells. The businesses are Tahoe Tom’s, USA Gas Station, a Beacon station in South Lake Tahoe, a Beacon station in Meyers, a gas station at 7-11, and the Terrible Herbst station.

Three of those sites – Tahoe Tom’s, USA, and the Beacon Meyers station – have new tanks, according to STPUD reports, but continue to leak. Tahoe Tom’s replaced its tanks in 1989, said Virginia Huber, Tahoe division manager with El Dorado County Environmental Management. The station’s tank and piping passed recent tests, but it still needs to upgrade other parts, such as the monitoring system.

“We are remedying the problem,” said Thomas Erickson, owner of Tahoe Tom’s. “We are attacking it and have an environmental company that is going to handle the cleanup. It’s (the tank system) like a computer – in two years it becomes obsolete.”

Erickson said that within the next few weeks ditches will be dug and the new devices will be installed. The tanks are new, double-walled units that already meet the new requirements.

The upcoming deadline applies to all underground storage tanks, not just fuel tanks, so all businesses in the Tahoe Basin will have to upgrade their tanks by mid-October. Dernbach said in California the enforcement will come from the counties that issued the tank permits – El Dorado and Placer – while in Nevada it will be the Nevada State Division of Environmental Protection.

“We will inspect every site in Nevada and create a data base of the equipment that is on each site,” said Doug Zimmerman, bureau chief for the NSDEP’s bureau of corrective action. “By the end of December, we hope to have a high compliance rate, say around 90 percent. That still leaves 100 sites throughout the state that will need to be prioritized. Sites in environmentally sensitive areas like Lake Tahoe, where there is shallow groundwater, will be at the top of the list.”

In El Dorado County, gas stations that do not meet requirements will be unable to receive fuel in 1999.

“We have been letting people know for the last several years, so everyone should be aware of the deadline and the requirements,” Huber said. “The important thing is our department will issue certificates and compliance tags to each gas station in order for them to get fuel after the deadline of Dec. 22.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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