Find it. Fix it. Fund it.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 540,000 underground storage tanks (USTs) at retail gas stations, service garages, bus terminals and manufacturing facilities across the U.S. store petroleum products or other hazardous substances. 

A leak, or release, in a UST or anywhere along the piping system that brings its contents above ground poses a significant threat to nearby soil and groundwater. Locating and remedying releases as soon as possible is a public health imperative. 

To guard the safety of people and natural resources, EPA regulations administered at the state level govern the design, construction, installation and maintenance of diesel, gasoline, and waste oil USTs. In most states, funding is available through states to help offset related cleanup costs.

Owners of properties with active USTs or tanks no longer in use (sometimes referred to as legacy or orphan USTs) need to be familiar with their liability for the environmental risks associated with USTs, and what steps to follow when a UST leak is suspected. 

In other words, how to find it, fix it, and fund it.

While this article cites Michigan’s UST policies as an example, each state sets its own procedures for investigating, confirming and mitigating UST releases, each determines the availability of financial resources for cleanup, and each sets its own rules for accessing those resources. 


Is there a problem underground?

Any number of events might point to a potential UST release. At a gas station, an equipment failure, an unexplained drop in petroleum product volume in a tank, or fuel visible on the ground are all red flags. Leaks may also be discovered during routine maintenance or replacement of tanks and tank systems.

Previously undetected leaks in USTs no longer in use may be found during the environmental due diligence process required when a property changes hands, or when a site is being readied for redevelopment. 

Reporting a potential release

If a UST is suspected of leaking petroleum into soil or groundwater, it is the property owner’s and/or the tank operator’s responsibility to report the possible release to the state’s environmental regulatory agency, investigate the situation, and relay the findings. 

Timing is critical when it comes to reporting a potential release. As detailed below, most states offer some form of financial assistance to help offset mitigation costs. Each state sets its own deadline for reporting a release in order to qualify for that assistance, and a quick turnaround is usually required.

In some cases, a leak or release can be quickly confirmed, by visual evidence such as an obvious hole in a tank or gasoline present in the subsurface, or when a tool called a photoionization detector (PID) detects elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC) at the site. But a release does not have to be confirmed to be reported. Any indication of a possible leak should be reported as a suspect release. 

In Michigan for example, any release, confirmed or suspected, must be reported within 24 hours of discovery in order to apply for financial support for cleanup. In the case of a suspect release, the owner has 14 days after the report to confirm the release in order to apply for financial assistance.


What’s involved in confirming and mitigating a release?

Most states have established procedures for gathering and analyzing the data needed to confirm a release. In Michigan, a suspected or confirmed release should be reported when soil and/or groundwater sampling detects levels of VOCs that are not consistent with previous data. 

In addition, when a UST and/or product piping is removed, site assessment procedures involve collecting a soil sample from each end of a UST or a water sample from the UST basin, and a sample every thirty feet along the piping run, starting at the furthest point from the tank and moving towards the tank. Specific laboratory analyses must be performed on samples from each type of tank (diesel, gas, used oil, waste oil), and any measurement above the state’s established limit for that substance must be reported.

Each state also has its own criteria for confirming that a petroleum release has been resolved or closed. In Michigan, the statute regulating the closure of leaking USTs is known as Part 213. It outlines the following steps:

  • An Initial Assessment Report (IAR) must be filed within six months of reporting the release. This report summarizes what is known about the release, and the steps taken to date to collect and analyze samples.
  • A Final Assessment Report (FAR) is required within one year of reporting the release. The FAR fully delineates the contaminated area (also known as the plume), and the exact extent to which contamination impacted soil, groundwater, and in the case of surrounding structures, soil gas. The FAR also details all of the corrective action steps planned to remediate the site. 
  • Once the FAR is approved by the regulatory authority, the corrective action plan can be implemented. When the remediation steps have been completed, a Closure Report is submitted. An approved Closure Report confirms that the release is considered closed, and no further action is required.

How long does it take to confirm the closure of a release?

The timeframe for resolving a petroleum release varies widely, from as short as one to two years from the initial report to the Closure Report, to more than a decade in rare and extreme cases. On average, a typical UST release takes around five years to resolve.


About UST Trust Funds

The majority of states offer some form of financial assistance to address the environmental effects of petroleum releases. In 36 states, that assistance is provided through a UST Trust Fund or UST Financial Assurance Fund. These funds serve as insurance policies for property owners, helping cover costs and damages associated with large scale contamination, which can be significant.

View the EPA map detailing the assistance offered in each state. 

Funds must be used for costs related to the cleanup of releases, such as the recovery of leaked fuels, the cleanup of contaminated surface or ground water, excavation to remove contaminated soil, replacing contaminated drinking water supplies, and even paying third party damages. Details on the activities covered (and not covered) in a given state are available from that state’s trust fund administrative agency. 

Property owners in Michigan may be eligible to claim up to $1 million through the Michigan Underground Storage Tank Authority (MUSTA) Cleanup Fund. 

Like most insurance policies, UST Trust Funds commonly require that property owners pay a deductible. Some specify a dollar amount, while others require owners to pay a percentage of cleanup costs. Michigan requires a $2,000 deductible for properties with seven or fewer USTs, and a $10,000 deductible for properties with eight or more USTs. 

What determines whether a property qualifies for financial assistance through a UST Trust Fund?

The site must be determined to be eligible, meaning that a release requiring cleanup has been confirmed. And of course, the release must have been called in within the state’s required reporting timeframe. 

Property owners must also meet certain requirements. They must demonstrate that they are in substantial compliance with all UST-related regulatory standards, and that they are current on all required registrations and fees. They must provide income and insurance-related documentation to show that they have the financial means to pay for cleanup costs before they are reimbursed by the fund. 

Don’t go it alone.

Of course, addressing a leaky UST is far more complicated than ‘find it, fix it, fund it.’ Policies vary widely by state, and each incident leaves its own unique environmental footprint. Partnering with an experienced environmental consultant is the best way to ensure that regulations are properly interpreted, crucial deadlines are met, and full advantage is taken of available cleanup funds.

Having successfully closed more than 400 leaking underground storage tank sites in the Midwest and Southeast since 1992, PM Environmental has the experience to troubleshoot any suspected UST leak and assist in navigating any state’s UST regulations and reimbursement funds.

The most common mistakes made by property owners are not contacting an environmental consultant immediately, and missing the deadline for reporting a suspected release. If you suspect a UST leak, call us right away to assist you with the release reporting. 


Curt Lichy, PG, CPG, PM Environmental’s National Manager, Retail Petroleum Services, contributed to this article.

Read more about UST Trust Funds.


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