Environmental Stability and the California Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund

Oct 4, 2010

This letter is directed at those who may have stakes in land and groundwater that suffer from petroleum contamination caused by leaking underground storage tank installations. In California there are over 8,700 such open cases that are administered through scores of agencies under the umbrella of the State Water Resources Control Board.

CORE Environmental Foundation is a joint creation of Consultants, Owners, Regulators and Enviro-vendors. CORE was founded in 2009 as a non-profit organization. The founders recognized the challenges facing the California Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund (Fund) and formed CORE to find ways to streamline processes and assist in solving problems the Fund was facing. CORE’s mission is, ‘‘A thriving community of environmental stakeholders advocating effective, cost-efficient remediation for contaminated land and groundwater.’’

Look up CORE at http://www.coreenvironmental.org

And look up the Fund at http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/ustcf

The California legislature established the Fund in 1989 and it started operating in 1991. It provides financial backup in the cleanup of properties contaminated by petroleum products discharged from underground storage tank systems. To date the Fund has expended close to 2.8 billion dollars. It is funded from a “storage fee” of $0.02 levied on every gallon of petroleum that is put in underground tanks.

The Fund reimburses cleanup costs that are Necessary and Reasonable. Costs are necessary when incurred pursuant to regulatory directives. These costs are then presented to the Fund through Reimbursement Requests and a team of Claim Reviewers evaluates their reasonableness. The claim review process is managed by veteran engineers and geologists, some with over 20 years of experience.

Cleanup goals for contaminated soil and groundwater are set by the regulatory sector on a case by case basis; there are no predetermined, across-the-board, California-universal target cleanup levels.

There are over 8,700 open cases and they are managed by independent agencies where each sets its own routines and objectives. The differences are explained by region-specific geography, groundwater regimes, and ecological ideologies.

In Fall of 2008, Fund Management found that they were running out of money faster than their streams of revenues; and they applied the brakes, hard: stop-gap measures that choked the process and stalled the environmental cleanups of thousands of contaminated sites. This caused a chain reaction that depressed operations of the consultants and enviro-service providers, causing mass layoffs in the industry.

One may be within rights to not care about the fate of the environmental service sector; except that one should also recognize the symbiotic web that is woven through the whole process, a web with nodes occupied by distressed property owners, consultants, regulators and vendors; a web that pulsates with interaction and creativity where new technologies develop daily to meet demands; where continual functioning is vital, where drastic measures, if haphazardly applied, can extinguish this activity irreversibly.

The situation was serious enough to have the Fund’s mother agency, the State Water Resources Control Board, establish Task Forces to analyze causes and offer remedies.

Two Task Forces were established; one to advise processes that would streamline the workings of the Fund, and another to address the environmental aspect of the problem; after all, it’s the protection of the environment that was driving the action; the resounding questions being of how much protection the environment really requires and if the results justify the costs.

In January of 2010, the Task Force focusing on the environmental aspect recommended that draft criteria be developed for fast closure of ‘‘low risk’’ sites; and in September of 2010, staff at the State Water Resources Control Board developed criteria that are now in the eye of a storm that followed and is brewing hard.

The ‘‘low risk’’ criteria aim at ending the (at times) decades-long, costly process of endless corrective actions that plague many sites. Its essential notion is that amongst the thousands of open cases there are those that pose minimal risk to public health and the environment, and such should be summarily closed.

In a nutshell, regardless how otherwise loaded a site may be, the case is assigned ‘‘low-risk’’ where (a) free petroleum has been removed to a ‘‘practicable’’ extent, (b) contamination is over 250 feet away from a drinking water well and not farther than 250 feet from source, and (c) the plume is dimensionally stable (not expanding). If these requirements are met, the case is closed!

A quick evaluation of these criteria shows weaknesses:

  • Free product must be removed to the ‘‘extent practicable.’’ But the jury is out as to how ‘‘practicable’’ is practicable. This can lead to abandonment of large masses of free gasoline in the ground, waiting to appear on an unprepared construction worker, or in wait for an opportunity to elope. One is reminded of a case in San Fernando Valley where free gasoline came out of a hillside. (Suggestion: Practicability can be established by demonstration of efficient employment of a best available technology.)
  • Risks of intrusion of toxic soil gas into buildings are not adequately addressed. Recent news reports tell of a gasoline service station in Seal Beach where a closed case has now re-opened upon discovery of intrusion of vapors from residual mass of gasoline into neighboring homes.
  • A case may be closed by the California State Water Resources Control Board as ‘‘low-risk’’ only to be reopened by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for concerns of intrusion of petroleum vapors into buildings; but when and if this should happen, there won’t be anymore financial assistance available from the Fund to the luckless property owner.
  • Stability is a key low-risk criterion; however, the proposed ’’low-risk’’ criteria offer no metrics for the recognition of ‘‘stability.’’ One determines the stability (or lack thereof) of a plume through the application of laws of physics, chemistry and biology as plotted against time. A plume of contaminants is ‘‘stable’’ where the components decay (chemically or biologically) over time within three dimensional boundaries, and where these boundaries do not expand through pathways like utility lines, river channels, tunnels, geologic faults, or through the movement of groundwater in the aquifer. In the absence of a pre-determined, science-based system for the measurement of stability, the case closure process can become biased or based on ulterior motives.
  • The criteria allow extrapolation of data to determine extent of plumes; however, there is no agreed-upon process for computing this extrapolation. Who will do it? The case worker? The property owner’s consultant? And what agreed-upon method will be used? Extrapolation is a sensitive matter that can be quickly abused if not controlled. It requires an optimal number of data points, and it requires sound assumptions.

If you have a stake in the fate of the leaking underground storage tank sites, whether as an owner, regulator, consultant, vendor or citizen who cares, I encourage you to get acquainted with Draft Resolution 09-07-2010. Please review this Draft and pass your comments along to the CORE Environmental Foundation at its contractor, MYM Consulting, michellemcbee@sbcglobal.net or write to the State Water Resources Control Board. You need to get involved if you want to have a say in what the Board does or if you have a stake in the future of properties in California that are impacted by petroleum or other contamination. One good way to be at cause over your future is to join the CORE Environmental Foundation. Go to http://www.coreenvironmental.org to join CORE.


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