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Keeping an Eye on Underground Storage Tanks

Installation of an underground storage tank in Salt Lake City, Utah

Installation of an underground storage tank in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Infographic describing the underground storage tank program in Utah.

Click to enlarge.

By Jared Mendenhall

Out of sight, out of mind. The old adage reminds us that ignorance is bliss. Luckily for Utah residents, the engineers and scientists at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Division of Environmental Response and Remediation (DERR) are not ignorant of one important out-of-sight risk—underground storage tanks (UST).

Underground storage tanks, by law, are defined as “any one or combination of tanks, including pipes connected thereto, that is used for the storage of hazardous substances and that is substantially or totally beneath the surface of the ground.”

If that description induced a shrug, it’s understandable. Simply put, USTs, for the most part, hold petroleum under gas stations. In a perfect world, these subterranean reservoirs of gasoline are not susceptible to corrosion, are foolproof to operator error, and never fail.

We don’t live in a perfect world.

The reality is that on occasion a UST will leak and contaminate soil, groundwater, or surface waters. In the worst cases, a UST leaks and petroleum works its way along natural underground pathways until it reaches homes or businesses and the fumes penetrate through the foundations and affect indoor air quality and human health.

Utah’s Underground Storage Tank Program works to prevent such disasters. The UST staff oversees the installation, inspection, removal, and compliance with state and national regulations of USTs. The work of release prevention and remediation is divided among three groups: The Compliance section ensures everyone is following the rules; the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Remedial Assistance section works to clean up sites where the responsible party is no longer capable of dealing with a leak; and, the Petroleum Storage Tank Fund section assists in clean-up operations that use funds from a trust set up to ensure mitigations of leaks from newer tanks.

The tank program harnesses the power of stakeholders throughout the state to address USTs in a fair and balanced approach with a unique group known as the  Underground Storage Tank Advisory Task Force.

Inspector from DEQ looking at an underground storage tank.

DEQ’s Compliance Section works to prevent overfilling, corrosion and spills from USTs.

Compliance Section

There are nearly 4,000 active USTs in Utah. Ensuring their operation and maintenance is above board falls to the UST Compliance Section. This team works with owners to confirm tanks are installed properly and that adequate safeguards are in place to prevent overfilling, corrosion, and spills. They do this by focusing on outreach, compliance verification (through installation, operational and closure inspections), and helping owners return to compliance when needed.

The section enforces additional requirements for reporting incidents of UST system shutdowns, releases, suspected releases, and the addition of new USTs. The team also ensures that records of all maintenance and operation are provided.

Leaking Underground Storage Tanks Remedial Assistance Section

When a leak occurs at a historic UST, or one where the responsible party is unknown, unwilling or unable to address the pollution, Utah’s Leaking Underground Storage Tanks (LUST) Remedial Assistance section oversees any needed clean-up activities. The LUST staff helps develop and evaluate the appropriate plan for these sites. Once the site has met its remediation objectives, the LUST team will issue a No Further Action letter to “close” the release. In 2019, DEQ “closed” 104 LUST releases.

Petroleum Storage Tank Fund Section

In 1989, the Utah State Legislature created the Petroleum Storage Tank Trust Fund (PST Fund) to provide UST owner/operators with a cost-effective way to meet the federal financial assurance requirements that require owners/operators to have the ability to pay for a cleanup. Coverage under the PST Fund is similar to an insurance policy and is funded by per gallon fuel surcharge collected at participating facilities. The fund covers eligible expenses in the case of a leak and is generally more affordable than private insurance.

The Petroleum Storage Tank Fund Section addresses and helps remediate any leak originating from a UST owned by a participant in the Fund. Similar to the LUST section, the PST Fund section oversees clean-up activities and ensure that human health is protected from leaks.

Underground Storage Tank Advisory Task Force

DERR utilizes an advisory task force to provide an avenue for UST program stakeholders to offer suggestions and feedback regarding program operation and development. The Task Force is comprised of representatives of various sectors of the industry, including retail gas stations, the Utah State Fuel network, UST installation and service companies, and remediation consultants.

Meetings are held four times a year. Topics include potential changes to statutes or rules, ways to implement various aspects of the program effectively, and areas of emerging concern. The Task Force provides invaluable input to the UST program and allows DERR to work closely with affected stakeholders to improve the program.

I am a public information officer for Utah DEQ and a former marketer and magazine editor. Follow me on Instagram @Jarv801.