Report says Virginia has thousands of unregulated aboveground chemical storage tanks

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A new report says Virginia has about 2,700 to 5,400 aboveground chemical storage tanks that are neither monitored nor tightly regulated by the state.

“For about 30 years, Virginia has had comprehensive top-to-bottom standards for aboveground oil tanks, but essentially nothing for aboveground chemical storage tanks,” said the law professor and report adviser. the University of Richmond, Noah Sachs, to the State Water Commission on December 1.

“We don’t have an inventory,” he said. “There is no legal obligation to alert anyone if you are building the tank or operating a tank that contains dangerous chemicals. ”

Inventorying these facilities is one of the recommendations of the Center for Progressive Reform’s “Tanks for Nothing” report released Wednesday, which urges Virginia to “adopt a comprehensive program that tracks reservoirs, prevents spills and puts information available to emergency planners and the public ”.

The document follows a 2019 survey by the nonprofit that found that nearly 1,100 industrial facilities in the James River watershed in Virginia that use chemicals regulated by the state or the federal government are at potential risk of flooding and sea level rise.

“Virginia is probably the most vulnerable jurisdiction on the east coast when it comes to climate impacts,” David Flores, co-author of the two reports, told the Mercury.

While the federal Environmental Protection Agency regulates aboveground storage tanks containing petroleum, it does not have a specific program to regulate these tanks when they contain hazardous substances. A lawsuit filed by environmental groups in 2019 resulted in a settlement that will require the agency to issue regulations by 2022 governing the “worst releases” of dangerous chemicals – a step that Flores says is “nothing. to despise ”but will not impose what he described the necessary requirements in matters of prevention of spills.

In the absence of such regulations, 10 states have developed their own monitoring programs.

Virginia lawmakers have shown sporadic concern over the issue since a high-profile incident in 2014 in Charleston, WV during which 10,000 gallons of a chemical used in coal processing escaped from a storage tank in the Elk River. The contamination affected the water supply of 300,000 residents, triggered a federal state of emergency, sickened more than 300 people and ultimately led to changes in West Virginia law.

A subsequent investigation by US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found that, among other issues, “because no uniform federal program regulates all ASTs, owners must navigate a web of diverse laws and regulations that directly or indirectly govern reservoirs, and states must address these loopholes. with regulations ”. In West Virginia, the council concluded that these tanks “were insufficiently regulated.”

Following the Elk River spill, the Virginia General Assembly ordered a review of existing Commonwealth laws and regulations governing the storage of chemicals.

The report, carried out jointly by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Emergency Management, and the Department of Health, identified a number of potential gaps in chemical storage standards and drinking water protections related to the storage of chemicals. chemical products.

Among its findings were that, although some chemicals are subject to reporting and notification requirements under federal law, “there is no corresponding regulatory program that governs the storage of these chemicals”; a “patchwork of federal and state laws and regulations” has resulted in a multitude of regulatory approaches “which may or may not address the risks associated with the storage of chemicals”; and “there is a general lack of siting requirements for chemical storage tanks in close proximity to water supply areas” identified by the State.

Not much has changed since then, said Flores. Legislation to regulate aboveground chemical storage tanks has been introduced in the state Senate and lodge in 2020 but failed to achieve success in the face of opposition from manufacturers. Of the. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, plans to introduce another bill on the matter in the next session.

Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, said aboveground storage tanks are already effectively regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality and that the additional regulatory proposals are “a solution to looking for a problem “.

“This AST regulatory regime will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in new, overlapping infrastructure and compliance costs without first identifying the objectives and existing opportunities for government agencies to harmonize the information already provided by the industry, ”he wrote in an email.

Flores, however, said her group’s reports as well as state agencies’ 2016 report to the General Assembly “speak loud enough that the time to act is now.”

The “Tanks for Nothing” report, for example, analyzed pollution reports from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and found that between 2000 and 2020, the state had at least 1,484 cases of spills, releases, storage inappropriate and illegal dumping involving above-ground storage. tanks. These incidents occurred statewide, affecting every locality except Charles City and King and Queen County, with an average of 11 incidents per jurisdiction.

Pollution incidents involving aboveground storage tanks between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2020 (Darya Minovi / Center for Progressive Reform)

These numbers almost certainly underestimate the problem, conclude the report’s authors, writing that “even when incidents involving storage tanks are reported, information about the incident and its impacts may be scarce as state and federal regulations do not exist. ‘do not require operators to conduct spill investigations and reports. the conclusions of these investigations.

“In my opinion, the time to study the matter is over and it is really time to address some legislative requirements,” Sachs, the law professor who acted as an adviser on the report, told the National Commission. some water.

Commission members, however, have been cautious. Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who brought one of the failed 2020 bills, said the issue “presents an excellent opportunity to continue discussions for next year in an attempt to put in place something we could come to a consensus on for maybe the 2023. session. ” Commission Chairman David Bulova D-Fairfax also said he “would benefit from a follow-up to get a bit more into the weeds over the next year”.

Lopez has nonetheless said he believes his bill may be viable in the next session. Discussions of “several significant changes” to the proposal he presented in 2020 are underway, he added.

“We have a lot more research now and a lot more information this year,” he said. “We think that by reviewing and negotiating these changes with all parties, maybe we could come to a yes.”


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