Keeping USTs and Fuel Dispensers Safe

“Those operators who are only now waking up to the need to tend to UST-related matters need not despair. I recently put together an update for a client I have on all 50 states, and everything I remember reading said that no one’s been cast out, shut down or told they can’t operate because they don’t have operator certification.”

 

- Marshall Mott-Smith,
President, Mott-Smith Consulting

Out of sight, out of mind could land convenience store and gas station owners in serious trouble if they neglect their underground storage tanks (USTs) any longer.

The federal and state governments lack a sense of humor when it comes to maintaining, monitoring and upgrading USTs, since the potential damage to neighboring communities and the local water supply can be tremendous. As such, monitoring agencies offer a host of rules and regulations operators must comply with.

Federal mandates requiring significant increases in the production and use of biofuels have led to an increase in the number of retail facilities storing and dispensing these renewable fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel.

The fuels have markedly different characteristics than petroleum gasoline and diesel, which means that UST stakeholders must be aware of the technical and policy issues related to their storage.

Operators who are selling ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel need to pay special attention to any signs of contamination, corrosion or any other type of accelerated deterioration of their components, according to John Eichberger, vice president of government relations for NACS, the association for convenience retailing.

“We’ve been hearing some sporadic reports from retailers—and we don’t know what the root cause is and there is no real pattern to it—that diesel fuel is causing excessive corrosion in some of their tank components,” Eichberger said. “That’s one of the things we recommend they keep an eye on.”

Know the Law
Another is that if they are being encouraged to sell higher levels of ethanol fuel to make sure all their equipment is appropriately listed as compatible with that fuel. If it is not, they are violating federal law. “Unfortunately,” said Eichberger, “a lot of them are violating the statutes. The E-15, the mid-level ethanol, is a really big deal. A lot of people have been trying to talk retailers into using blender pumps to sell E-15, E-20 and E-25. They’re not certified, so they’re illegal, and you are violating several levels of law when you do that.”

Out of sight should not be out of mind, said Mark Barolo, director of the policy and standards division for the Office of Underground Storage Tanks for the EPA.

“Maintaining operation and maintenance of underground storage tanks is crucial,” Barolo said. “The last deadlines we had to get equipment in place were back in 1998, but ongoing operation and maintenance are critical to keep focused on.”

Barolo’s second piece of advice for c-store operators concerns the movement across the country toward alternative fuels, such as higher blends of ethanol and biodiesel. “Our recommendation is to keep focused on the need to ensure compatibility. If you choose to store higher blends of ethanol or bio-diesel, you need to make sure that your tank systems are compatible with those substances.”

The determination of compatibility is not necessarily expensive, Barolo pointed out, but depends on the system in use. “Remember, there are a lot of different components within a system,” he said. “Sometimes there are a few small pieces that need to be changed, other times the tank itself or the piping needs to be changed. That’s where it becomes more expensive. These are the two issues I would suggest operators keep focused on.”

Maintenance is Key
Renewable fuels aside, just plain old operation and maintenance of USTs is something c-store operators need to keep pace with. That is often easier said than done. For instance, how many know that on Aug. 3, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed extending the compliance date by one year for certain facilities subject to recent amendments to the Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule?

The proposed rule to extend the SPCC deadline was significantly delayed and final publication threatened by political backlash resulting from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Neglecting USTs can prove costly. In August, an EPA official announced that P.J. Hyde & Son Inc. would not only spend $60,000 to upgrade its leak-detection system, but would pay a $16,000 fine because it had failed to properly test leak-detection equipment for leaks at five gas stations in Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and Indian Lake, and a hotel in Lake Clear in upstate New York.

“Out of sight does not mean out of mind when it comes to underground storage tanks, which is why it is critical that facilities monitor their tanks and make sure they are not leaking,” said EPA regional administrator Judith Enck. “The Adirondack Park is an environmentally sensitive area of the state that is teeming with clean water, which could easily be impacted by leaking tanks.”

Ronald Santicola, a licensed real estate broker with Convenience Development Corp./Condevco LLC, a consulting and real estate firm based in Highland Beach, Fla., urged operators to make sure that they are in statutory compliance with their state’s double-wall tank statutes, something he said most in the industry are already aware of.

Another factor to consider, according to Santicola, is what type of inventory reconciliation is accepted by each state. “Can you just send in statistical information? Do you need to have electronic monitoring? A lot of these

operators don’t necessarily own the sites or the equipment, and somebody who’s leasing it to them may tell them they’re fine when they’re not,” he said. “Just try and follow the rules.”

If something involving the tanks looks amiss, Santicola urged operators to react to it immediately. “Don’t wait a couple of days to see if the shortage fixes itself or something. I’ve seen it happen. Cars don’t heal themselves, and neither do tanks.”

Submersible turbine pumps also require some operator attention. “People start to complain that the fuel flow is slow, or the nozzles are clicking on and off all the time. Don’t just stop at changing the filter, take a look,” Santicola added. “If you’re in a vapor-recovery area make sure the vapor-recovery system isn’t jammed up, because that will create nozzle issues on the back pressure. Also, be sure to check the STPs to make sure there isn’t something going wrong there.”

A fuel pump, Santicola underscored, isn’t really a pump. “It’s a dispenser. The thing that actually pushes the fuel out sits in the bottom of the tank. That’s really what you need to look at.”

The Big Thing Now
“The issue operators need to focus on now is certification,” said Marshall Mott-Smith, president of Mott-Smith Consulting in Tallahassee, Fla. “The deadline for operator certification is coming up for Class A, B and C tanks. They really ought to check their individual state tank program Web sites to see about implementation dates and deadlines. They’re going to vary.”

In some places, states have chosen to go with commercially available classes for A, B and C, while in others the state is actually providing the training, which will keep the cost down. “They’ll either have classroom types of courses or Internet-based programs,” Mott-Smith said.

It remains hard to make generalizations about all 50 states on operator certification. “Generally speaking the federal law prevails. It came out of the Energy Act of 2005, and the federal deadlines are coming up in August 2011,” Mott-Smith said. Caution is needed as some states have deadlines that may arrive sooner than the federal requirements. “They need to check with their individual state UST Web sites and m
ake sure they are going to be in compliance with the operator certification requirements.”

In some states, those UST sites are associated with the fire marshal’s office, in others with environmental agencies. Either way, operators should know where to find the data they’re looking for. “Typically they’re going to have a registration from that regulatory agency; they’re going to know who to talk to,” Mott-Smith said.

Ironically, states have had to obtain their own statutory authority, from their own legislatures, in order to implement the federal Energy Act because they are unable to enforce a federal rule without a state-specific authority to do so. “A lot of them have gone back to their legislatures and received authority not just to do the operator certification, but the other requirements of the Energy Act,” Mott-Smith said. These include secondary containment for all new tanks and all new piping systems, as well as under-dispenser containments, spill buckets and piping.

According to Mott-Smith, who managed regulatory programs for 22 years for the state of Florida, it remains more or less a level playing field for all new facilities going forward. “But again, the states are in different stages of success as far as getting their statutory authority.”

Once that authority is in place, however, states must also go through the rule-making process.

“Some state rule-making processes are just incredibly cumbersome and long,” Mott-Smith said. “Others are already done; they’re over with. So again, this is where your owners need to take a look at the specific landscape in their states and see where that state is as far as implementation of the Energy Act.”

Take Violations Seriously
Yet another important consideration is what is called a delivery prohibition. If owners are cited for violations of state underground storage tank rules that are considered especially serious—a threat for ground—or surface-water contamination, for example, the state can actually prohibit the delivery of fuel to that tank. “They have what’s called a lock-out type program, and they can deny fuel to the owner,” Santicola advised.

As with all regulations, owners need to check with their states and see whether they’ve implemented that rule yet. Mott-Smith estimated that about a third of the states have the authority to enforce all the provisions of the Energy Act of 2005, while others are in various stages.

The state that may be the farthest behind on the Energy Act is the one with which Mott-Smith is most familiar, Florida, he said. Legislators there chose not to go for any of the Energy Act requirements because they have their own rules, which may be even more stringent. “So as these deadlines go by in 2011, it will be up to the Environmental Protection Agency, probably, to come down there and enforce those requirements,” he said.

The EPA is in the process of amending its rules, something it has not done since 1988. “There are a lot of proposed changes that are coming out,” Mott-Smith concluded. “I’ve actually been hired to review those rules, but generally speaking there are going to be some other changes coming down for the tank owners.”

The bottom line, Santicola noted, is simply that operators don’t pay adequate attention to their systems, which is understandable.

“These things are underground, the deliveries are automatic and as long as everything is going right people tend to forget about tank maintenance. But they are the key portion of petroleum operations and need to be protected and monitored as such.”

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