Logo horizontal ruler

Self-Policing By Private Gas Stations Could Spill Trouble

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

November 30 -- Despite millions spent over two decades by the City to clean up and plug potentially devastating underground gas tank spills, municipal officials warn that self policing by private gas stations remains a problem.

Since 2000, ten spills have been recorded in Santa Monica, which has 129 fuel tanks buried within its borders, resulting in a costly clean ups, City officials said.

"If all the proper procedures are followed by private operators, then the system works well," said Craig Perkins, the City's director of Environmental and Public Works Management. "Unfortunately there are some who have cut corners and don't follow procedures, and that's when we get problems."

The City "must rely on the good behavior" of private gas stations to follow the correct procedures and also report when a problem occurs, which doesn't always happen, Perkins said.

"There was one instance where a local gas station turned off its warning system because it was going off too often," said Perkins, noting that the City has a single inspector to ensure that proper procedures are followed by private facilities.

In the most well-known case, the City won a landmark settlement last December against Shell, Mobil and Chevron, which were charged with contaminating the City's soil and groundwater supply when the fuel additive known as MTBE leaked from gas tanks in Mar Vista.

The oil giants and a half dozen smaller companies were ordered to pay the City some $100 million, as well as build and maintain a new water treatment facility.

The environmental impact in the area is felt even to this day, Perkins said.

Another significant spill was detected in 1995, this one closer to Santa Monica’s borders at the Exxon-Mobile station on Wilshire and Bundy, according to David Bacharowski of the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), which oversees the clean-up of spills when ground water becomes contaminated.

That spill contaminated ground water production wells nearly 200 feet from the site, resulting in the eventual removal of the three tanks, Bacharowski said.

Although that site has been cleaned up, RWQCB Engineer Jay Huang said he is still remediating two spills that that first occurred in the early 1980s on Lincoln Boulevard near the I-10 Freeway.

To cut down on the number of spills, it became mandatory in 1998 to replace all underground metal fuel tanks with double walled-fiberglass, or similar synthetic materials, a lead followed by the State last July, Perkins said .
Since then, the numbers of spills have declined, he said.

The City’s trail-blazing safeguards have averted spills at municipal sites such as the City Recycling and Big Blue Bus yards, but the City is still spending money cleaning up spills that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, according to City officials.

Earlier this month, the City Council approved $2.5 million to clean up those spills.

Despite the recent technological improvements, the threat of spills remains a concern, according to Perkins.

“Before they were replaced with fiberglass, up to twenty-five percent of these underground tanks were expected to fail during their lifetimes,” Perkins said. “Now that’s down to about five percent.”

However, even a five percent failure rate can be devastating to the environment and consumers, said Perkins, who advocates a “more radical” approach to the entire problem.

“Although there is a fire safety, I would suggest moving the tanks above ground,” said Perkins, who noted this is a technique used commonly in Europe. Doing so, he said, would make it easier to inspect the tanks and detect leaks.

The other option is moving from a reactive system to increased monitoring by inspectors, rather than the companies themselves, Perkins said.

“There really is insufficient monitoring occurring right now,” he said. “Ultimately if there is a problem it gets passed onto the consumer in the end, not to mention the huge impact it has on the environment.

“It needs to work well up front,” Perkins said, “so it doesn’t fall apart at the end.”

Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 surfsantamonica.com. All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon