leaking fuel tanks: a cold war legacy

In the 1960s, during some of the tensest years of the Cold War, the federal government gave fuel tanks and generators to radio broadcasters throughout the country. The program intended to give the radio stations a means to broadcast news and vital information in the event of an emergency. The Federal Communications Commission and the Civil Defense Preparedness Agency managed the program, which involved some 700 stations by 1979, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was formed. Now, decades later, federal officials believe that hundreds of the tanks are leaking.

The old tanks are made of steel, which is highly corrosive. The underground tanks were especially prone to rust, thereby allowing the fuel to leak out into the surrounding earth.

Pat Coyne, director of business development for Environmental Data Resources, Inc. said that steel tanks tend to rot like “Swiss cheese,” according to a report by the Associated Press.

The rusting tanks and other programs once administered by the Civil Defense Preparedness Agency became FEMA’s responsibility after the agency was formed. Decades later, the agency is still trying to inventory the tanks it owns – now numbering more than 2,000. The agency still doesn’t know the exact geographical locations of some of the tanks, whether they are above ground or underground, or whether they are leaking. The paper trail tied to the tanks spans several decades and hands. No evidence to date suggests that these government-owned underground storage tanks (USTs) have created environmental or health problems because of leakage.

But the government tanks, which FEMA and the FCC have tossed back and forth like a hot potato of  responsibility, are just one part of a much more massive problem: the existence of more than half a million USTs holding fuel and oil buried throughout the country. No one knows exactly how many of the tanks could be leaking.

USTs that leak diesel or other fuel can easily contaminate the groundwater. It takes just one gallon of diesel fuel to effectively contaminate one million gallons of water, putting people at risk for cancer, kidney damage, nervous system disorders and a number of other health hazards.

FEMA has worked to repair and or replace some of the tanks since the 1990s. Others have been removed or filled with sand. But many of the tanks, including many suspected leakers, have yet to be removed. More modern tanks must be made of leak-proof polymers and have a leak detection system.

FEMA spokesman Dan Stoneking told the AP that it is working to fix the problem of all the leaking tanks under its jurisdiction. “We are committed to upholding our obligations to remediate, remove or upgrade them as necessary,” he told the AP. “We believe in adhering to any relevant environmental rule or law and will do so.”