Aging Gasoline Storage Tanks in Washington Pose Environmental Hazard, But Many Owners Can't Afford Cleanup

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VAN ZANDT, Whatcom County — For 49 years, Jeff Margolis and his late wife, Amy, ran Everybody's Store, a gas station and sandwich stop in this community east of Bellingham. They never made much money on the shop, tucked into the Nooksack Valley below Mount Baker, but tended the front counter out of an enduring belief in building social capital.

"We ran this business on love," said Margolis, 80, trucks on the nearby Valley Highway rumbling by.

The store's closed now, shuttered in 2019, and Amy has passed away. A for-sale sign looms over the empty building.

Margolis would like to free himself of his former business's husk, but there's a problem: The dirt beneath it is considered contaminated and in need of cleanup. Several large, 1930s-era underground gasoline storage tanks were on the property when Margolis bought it. When he replaced them in 1997, they were pocked with holes. The state cleared the property at the time, but in 2017, citing leftover contamination, rescinded the bill of health as Margolis was decommissioning his gas pumps.

Now, at a time he'd hoped to have moved on from the store, liability for the contamination, and a potential million-dollar cleanup, falls to him.

"It's just debilitating because it undermines my ability to get worth out of the place because the buyer has to worry about the liability," he said. "I don't even dare give it to one of my daughters for fear that they will attach a bill."

As Washington state looks toward a more electric-powered future, it may also find itself reckoning with a gas-powered past. The average age of Washington's nearly 10,000 underground fuel storage tanks currently in use by gas stations and others is 28 years, according to Department of Ecology data — just two years shy of when most warranties on tanks expire and when many believe they're particularly vulnerable to leaking. Some of those tanks have been upgraded since their initial installation, but even those upgrades are 25 years old on average.

While leaking tanks haven't resulted in reports of any single catastrophic contamination, there's a sense among environmental advocates that crumbling gas stations, combined with the many abandoned or forgotten sites, are causing injury by a thousand cuts. The state Legislature calls them a "a serious threat to human health and the environment."

Already, nearly 2,500 known sites are in need of cleanup in Washington, many from old or forgotten gas stations. Underground tanks are linked to roughly half of the state's contaminated sites.  Combined, the state faces a pixelated map of thousands of small environmental cleanups — an expensive burden that can fall to owners and operators who don't have the means to take them on.

Regulations in Washington have become more stringent in recent years and some money from the state is available. But Mark Dunec, a real estate consultant with FTI Consulting, said the scope of the problem across the country demands broader recognition from both government and private industry.

"Everyone's an ostrich," he said. "Everyone's ignoring, ignoring and then they're going to have to deal with it. It's avoidance. The more they avoid, the more expensive it's going to be down the road."

30-year window

In the last five years, Ryan Bixby, managing principal of Sound Earth, has inspected 100 or more gas stations in Washington.

"Anecdotally, the 30-year window is a good estimate of how long many tank systems last," he said. In Maine, state law says tanks must be upgraded or removed at 30 years. Even if the tank itself is still in working condition, the piping and fitting around it often fail, he said.

The wave of aging tank systems in Washington and across the country is the product of regulatory reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Spurred by television coverage of leaking storage tanks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new regulations in 1988, requiring they be updated or replaced to prevent spills.

Between 1988 and 1997, Washington saw a rush of new tanks installed, leading up to a 1998 order from the EPA that all tanks be upgraded or shuttered permanently. Since then, however, tank replacements have slowed, according to Department of Ecology data.

A 2015 report comparing eight states found Washington's tanks were the oldest, nearly six years older than Vermont's. At the same time, the state's soggy conditions tend to speed up tanks' decline.

The state's Pollution Liability Insurance Agency found in 2015 that over 2,500 operational storage tanks were within a mile of a drinking well deemed highly susceptible to contamination. Unlike in the 1980s, there haven't been recent reports of poisoned water. But the prospect of fuel leaching into groundwater is concerning enough to the state that it has some of the nation's strictest cleanup laws. Contaminated soil can take years to clean up and vapors from gasoline are known to have negative impacts on health.

Owners of gas stations not affiliated with a major distributor could face a million-dollar cleanup.

"A lot of the gas station owners, they don't make a huge profit, so it can be really hard for them to afford to clean up their site," said Cassandra Garcia, deputy director of PLIA. "Banks are usually not very excited to loan people money for something that's contaminated."

That can lead owners to look the other way.

"A lot of smaller gas stations may not want to go and find out what the condition of their property is because once they do they have to do something about it," said Seattle attorney Ken Lederman, who specializes in contaminated properties.

PLIA launched a loan and grant program to help replace aging tanks, clean up contamination and convert gas stations into electric charging stops in 2015, and was budgeted $10 million from the Legislature in 2017.

It's a small start.

Staff has completed planning assessments for 67 sites, with 13 in progress, funding seven cleanup sites so far. Since 2020, however, the program hasn't accepted any new applications as it works through its current docket amid COVID-related slowdowns.

"This is like a tiny teaspoon in the ocean," Garcia said. But, "even if it is that, one teaspoon is going to get cleaned."

Electric vehicle push

Hanging over the state's aging gas infrastructure is the push to move to electric vehicles. Washington recently approved a plan to phase out sales of new gas-powered cars by 2030 and signed on to California's plan to ban their sale by 2035.

Dunec says the result will be a dramatic reduction in demand for gas stations.

"Back in 2018, I took a bold stance and I said by 2030 half of gas stations will be obsolete and I got laughed out of the room," he said. He stands by that prediction. "I really believe that it's going to happen very quickly."

In parts of the state where demand for land is high, private developers are often willing to take on the task of cleanup. Additionally, when a contaminated site is discovered, oil companies are frequently made to write the check to take care of it.

But in places like Van Zandt, where Margolis lives, historic or aging gas stations could leave a heavy burden.

Matthew Metz,  executive director of Coltura, an environmental advocacy group, is pushing the state to limit or even ban new gas stations, shutter any station found to be leaking and force owners to pay for their cleanup. "Working our way out of it is going to be really painful," said Metz, who also pressed the state to adopt the 2030 gas car phaseout.

Technology and regulation of tanks have improved, with more sophisticated leak detection to avoid the water poisonings of the late 1980s. In 2018, the state Legislature passed new rules regulating underground storage tanks, which the Department of Ecology says has limited the number and severity of new leaks.

But addressing contamination is more complicated than many expect, involving years of monitoring and follow up.

When Sea Mar Community Health Centers was developing its property in South Park, it discovered the site was once a gas station. Staff believed it would be a limited cleanup, said Michael Leong, Sea Mar's senior vice president of corporate and legal affairs. But the more they dug, the more they found. "It was like a never-ending pit," said Leong.

Sea Mar hired a firm to help it locate the former gas station's last owner, but found only one family member still alive and she was not in a position to engage with a cleanup effort. The final cost was "north of a million dollars," said Leong. It took Sea Mar nearly six years to get the all-clear from Ecology.

The process was so cumbersome, Leong said, that Sea Mar has since reformed its vetting process for new properties.

In Margolis and Sea Mar, some see a glimpse of the future — a onetime gas station owner on a contaminated site and the downstream headaches of leaving behind aging tanks.

Dunec, the real estate consultant, said government needs to play a bigger role. "Ultimately at the end of the day you need working government saying this is what we need to do to move forward," he said. "There have to be regulations to do this properly."

Margolis agrees.

"This has been leaking for generations" he said. "And for generations, there was no oversight. Now the government's realized that there should be oversight, but yet they make the person who's been there, who's inherited that, have all the responsibility for cleaning it up."