How UST Regulations Have Impacted Retailers
Looking back, the level of naivety is almost stunning. For decades, fuel retailers had been storing their supplies on-site and below ground in underground storage tanks (USTs). The installation followed a basic template: dig a hole; put the UST in it; cover it with concrete, asphalt or, in some cases, gravel; leave an access pipe protruding; and pump a volatile fluid into it — without ever really knowing what was happening beneath the surface.
Well, in 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found out exactly what was happening: As many as 30 percent of the more than one million USTs containing petroleum products or other hazardous substances had been or were currently leaking, with an estimated 50 percent of those leaks eventually reaching and contaminating local groundwater supplies.
In response, the EPA created its “Federal Regulations for Underground Storage Tank Systems” and set an implementation date of December 1998. To say these new UST regulations were significant to manufacturers, marketers and the retail-fueling industry as a whole would be a gross understatement.
What these regulations — which demanded that USTs and their system piping incorporate technology that would monitor, detect and prevent spills, overfills, leaks and corrosion — did was create an entirely new way retailers would have to operate. It was the equivalent of one day having to call a central operator in order to make a personal phone call to the next day being able to use a smartphone to do online banking.
The most immediate concern for fuel retailers when the new UST regulations were announced back in the mid-1990s was how much the mandated site upgrades would cost them. In the new components that would be required, there would need to be a pretty significant capital investment because the whole infrastructure of the site would need to be modified to some degree.
Even faced with those immediate costs, some of the country’s larger retailers — from the likes of Hess and ExxonMobil to Shell and BP — saw the ultimate benefits that these new regulations would have for retailers, consumers and the environment in the future and embraced them from the start, oftentimes installing systems or components that exceeded the level of protection that was set forth in the 1998 UST regulations.
While those 1995 regulations unquestionably established a new mindset in the ways the operation and safety of USTs were considered, the EPA has kept working to fine-tune those regulations in the ensuing years. The latest update to the EPA’s UST regulations was finalized earlier this summer.
The updated regulations mostly concern the responsibilities of fueling-site operators as they pertain to the inspection of USTs and their corresponding equipment. The updated regulations include:
- Walkthrough inspections every 30 days to check spill-prevention equipment for damage and to remove any liquid or debris; check for and remove any obstructions in the fill pipe; check the fill cap to ensure it is securely on the fill pipe; and if double-walled spill buckets with interstitial monitoring are used, check for leaks in the interstitial area.
- Annually check containment sumps for damage and leaks to the containment area or releases into the environment; remove liquid or debris in contained sumps; and for installations with double-walled containment sumps, check for leaks in the interstitial area.
- Annually check handheld release-detection equipment, such as gauge sticks and ballers, for operability and serviceability.
- Overfill-protection equipment must be inspected at least once every three years.
The updated regulations instruct owners/operators to conduct operation and maintenance walkthrough inspections according to a standard code of practice developed by a nationally recognized association of independent testing laboratory, or according to the requirements developed by the implementing agency.
ANSWERING THE CALL
The other constituency that was called into action by the regulations was the manufacturers of underground equipment and systems for use in fueling stations — and did they ever rise to the occasion.
The advancements in USTs and their related systems and components have been so groundbreaking (no pun intended) since 1998 that when the EPA updated the regulations earlier this year, most fuel retailers would be able to get their sites in compliance with a minimal amount of effort or additional capital costs.
This brief list of the technological advancements for USTs and their systems that have resulted since 1998 is profound, with many now considered industry-standard technologies:
- Loop Systems. Completely integrated, environmentally secure underground fuel-delivery systems that, by design, employ prefabricated, factory-assembled components that result in dramatically less field labor and lower associated installation costs and the potential for installation errors.
- Vapor-Tight & Testable Overfill Prevention Valves. Vapor-tight two-stage valves designed to prevent the overfill of USTs by providing a positive shutoff of product delivery when the liquid level reaches 95 percent to 98 percent of the UST’s storage capacity. In addition to being vapor-tight, these new valves are testable from the surface so maintenance personnel don’t have to remove the valve from the UST.
- Double-Wall Spill Containers. Installed in the same space as single-wall spill containers, but they significantly improve reliability, monitoring, leak containment and serviceability.
- Replaceable Single-Wall Spill Containers. These affordable, easy-access spill containers do not require concrete to be broken during their installation and meet all requirements of the 1998 and 2015 UST regulations.
- Rigid Entry Fittings. Have minimal exposed rubber and the sealing redundancy throughout the fitting provides maximum containment and protection from water intrusion, even after ground shifting. No longer do retailers have to deal with the cost and unreliability of fiberglass or steel piping and joints that need to be glued.
While UST equipment manufacturers continue to fine-tune their products and create new offerings, the next exciting frontier in UST monitoring will be found in cyberspace. Smart technologies are now giving site operators a mobile access point at all times via smartphone and other evolving communication technologies.
These technologies will provide the capability for the operator to review and access information instantly, letting the operator know if a UST system isn’t working properly or even if it has been installed correctly. This fingertip information in real-time will help operators identify and correct leaks, spills and overfills before they can even occur.
No one can argue this fact: Change is scary. But when that change is forced upon you and can include increased financial responsibility, it can become quite frightening. Still, when the EPA’s 1998 UST regulations came into effect, there can be no arguing that something needed to be done to halt the release of hazardous petroleum products into the ground before they could find their way into groundwater supplies. Faced with this daunting challenge, the industry as a whole responded with flying colors.
Retailers embraced the new regulations and manufacturers put on their thinking caps, creating a generation of UST technologies that helped the industry evolve more in 10 years than it had in the previous 50.
In the end, the next-generation requirements of the 1998 UST regulations led to next-generation solutions from equipment manufacturers that are still resulting in the implementation of fully integrated fuel-containment systems that reliably and successfully protect people and the environment
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.