Underground storage tank inspectors for the Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency launched a two-year program geared toward inspecting all of the tanks buried on Navajo land. The federal EPA announced on March 24 that it had issued inspector credentials to two inspectors from the Navajo Nation’s EPA. The Navajo inspectors now have the authority to carry out the important inspections on behalf of the federal EPA.
The Navajo inspectors are also authorized to issue citations for tanks that do not meet federal EPA criteria for safety. Fines for problematic tanks, normally ranging from $500 to $3,000, encourage tank owners to bring and keep their tanks into compliance with U.S. regulations.
Federally recognized Native American tribes exist as sovereign entities, yet they are still subject to federal laws. According to the EPA’s UST / LUST National Native American Lands directive, “Underground storage tanks located on tribal lands generally are not subject to state laws. As a result, unless a state acts as a tribe’s agent pursuant to a formal agreement with a tribe, EPA and the tribe are responsible for implementing and enforcing the UST program on tribal lands.”
The EPA estimates that approximately 6,000 USTs are buried on Native American land. Most of the USTs on native lands are concentrated in the western half of the country, especially in the EPA’s Region 8, which includes the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. Tanks buried on Navajo land are generally concentrated in the Arizona, California, and Nevada region in an area about the size of West Virginia. EPA estimates there are 200 tanks on Navajo land.
Preventing underground storage tanks from leaking is one of the EPA’s top priorities. Such tanks usually hold fuel, motor oil, and other environmentally hazardous substances. In just one year, 400 gallons of fuel can be released into the ground and water from a single hole the size of a pinhead. Just one gallon of fuel will make one million gallons of water unsafe for human and animal consumption. Hundreds of thousands of USTs are buried throughout the country, many of them older, single-layered steel tanks that have corroded over time.
The EPA hopes that its pilot program on the Navajo Nation will serve as a model for other tribes nationwide.
New storage tanks must be equipped with spill and overfill protection and leak detection equipment. They must also be double lined and made of corrosion-resistant polymers. Leaks and spills that are promptly detected are far easier and less expensive to clean up, the EPA says.