NC may ease law for leaky gas tanks

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 2, 2011

By EMERY P. DALESIO – Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina legislators are considering easing the rules on leaking underground gas storage tanks as Republicans use their majority power to pare back environmental regulations with the aim of freeing businesses to expand.
The measure approved by a Senate environment committee on Thursday meshes with other GOP proposals that would cut back environmental regulations to standards required by federal law.
The bill would limit the extent of any cleanup from underground or above-ground tanks to depend on how much risk the pollutants pose. Tank owners who demonstrate cleanup would cause a “severe financial hardship” could have the cleanup costs paid from a state fund that collects money from gasoline taxes and fees on operators.
“Obviously some folks love it and some folks hate it,” said Sen. Don East, R-Surry, the bill’s sponsor. The bill is designed “to relieve some of the pressure on some of these folks” who own the storage tanks.
Count environmentalists among those hating the proposal.
Pollution from leaking tanks should be cleaned to a standard that protects public health now and in the future, and polluters should pay to clean up their own mess, said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina.
“This bill walks away from those principles,” she said.
The legislation also tackles a cleanup problem that has already lasted a generation and cost a half-billion dollars, and at the current pace of removing containers could linger about as long and cost as much, according to a 2009 report by legislative analysts. The report recommended raising fuel taxes and operator fees to catch up on the backlog.
North Carolina has one of the country’s largest collections of underground fuel tanks at nearly 30,000. The federal government mandated in the mid-1980s that states regulate underground tanks and required owners to take financial responsibility if their tanks leaked.
North Carolina stood behind the petroleum dealers by creating a backup cleanup fund that uses money from gasoline taxes and fees on operators. As a result, taxpayers pick up more than half the cleanup costs through the taxes paid on gasoline and other petroleum products, while tank owners and operators pick up about a third of the cost, said Dexter Matthews, who heads the waste management division of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Petroleum distributors complain that North Carolina’s environmental rules are much stricter than neighboring states.
“We really can’t meet them in any kind of cost-effective manner,” said Joe Harrell, who owns Harrell Oil Co. in Mount Airy. “Virginia is significantly cheaper.”