Editorial: Buried issues are out there

  • Posted: Sunday, November 3, 2013 12:39 p.m.

Contrary to what the Salisbury Post was initially told by a state environmental agency, there’s no indication of known serious contamination issues at the Salisbury Mall property, which the county is considering purchasing.

That’s good news. A clean bill of health would simplify any eventual transaction, should county officials deem this an attractive buy. As we’ve seen with the controversy over contamination and remediation at the South Main Street site proposed for the school central office, buried fuel tanks can bring a lot of residual issues to the surface — political as well as environmental.

But even if the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources had been correct in describing monitoring wells on the mall property, that wouldn’t necessarily be reason to walk away. When it comes to leaking underground tanks and potential contamination, what we don’t know poses a greater risk than the problem sites that have been identified and are under remediation. Once identified, contamination can be cleaned up. Left undetected, old, corroded tanks are like hidden toxic tumors that can poison groundwater and soil.

Leaking underground storage tanks — both commercial tanks at service stations and residential heating oil tanks — are a national problem, and North Carolina has more than its share. As of September 2012, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said the state had a cleanup backlog of 4,635 sites, out of a more than 80,000 pending completion nationwide. Bear in mind those are just the known leaks from commercial installations — like the site at 329 South Main. Because residential fuel tanks have been largely unregulated, identifying and remediating leaks from underground home heating-oil tanks poses a different problem, of unknown extent.

Although the state has established funds to help clean up both commercial and residential storage tank contamination, lack of funds has hampered those efforts. A 2009 N.C. legislative report noted that completing cleanup at known commercial leakage sites would cost at least $513 million (on top of $543 million already spent) and take 25 years at current funding levels. Known residential tank contamination would require another $36 million in cleanup funds. The report warned that the cleanup system’s solvency was shaky because leak reports were coming in faster than they could be remediated.

So don’t be surprised if at some point in the future, on land a local municipality or county government already owns or plans to acquire, the issue of underground contamination, remediation and monitoring wells rises up again. Rather than viewing that as proof of inept leadership or fuel for a game of “gotcha,” however, consider it more evidence of buried problems we’ll be dealing with for decades to come.

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