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Underground FEMA fuel tanks could leak

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

WASHINGTON — The government owns hundreds of underground fuel tanks — many designed for emergencies back in the Cold War — that need to be inspected for leaks of hazardous substances that could be making local water undrinkable.

The list includes two tanks in Cape Girardeau and eight in other locations across Missouri, including one tank in Kennett in Dunklin County and one in West Plains, Mo. FEMA would not provide the exact location of the tanks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has known since at least the 1990s that tanks under its supervision around the country could be leaking fuel into soil and groundwater, according to Associated Press interviews and research.

The agency knows of at least 150 underground tanks that need to be inspected for leaks, according to spokeswoman Debbie Wing. FEMA also is trying to determine by September whether an additional 124 tanks are underground or above ground and whether they are leaking.

Likely to leak

There has been no documentation of reported leaks or harm to communities from the FEMA tanks, Wing said, although former agency officials and congressional testimony suggest that the federal tanks have long been seen as a problem.

Many of these tanks were built to store 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel and placed around the country at the height of the Cold War back in the 1960s to fuel electric generators that could sustain emergency broadcasts by radio stations in case of a nuclear attack or other catastrophe. Made of steel, the tanks inevitably rust over time and allow fuel to escape.

Steel tanks left in the ground for decades rot like Swiss cheese, said Pat Coyne, director of business development for Environmental Data Resources Inc. Coyne said a joke in the industry is: "What percentage of steel tanks leak? 100 percent!"

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the government insisted on better-made tanks. The underground tanks of today must have safety measures including leak detection and an extra shell made with material resistant to gasoline, diesel and ethanol, Coyne said.

Buried tank problem

The FEMA tanks are part of a larger problem. More than 500,000 leaking storage tanks — most of which are filled with fuel and oil — are buried across the country, according to Environmental Data Resources, based in Milford, Conn. That's about half of all the underground tanks in the country, the consulting company says.

Because they're underground, leaking tanks can go undetected for years. If diesel leaks into drinking water, affected people could be at a higher risk of cancer, kidney damage and nervous system disorders, said Rochelle Cardinale, one of the lead coordinators for underground tank cleanup in Iowa. A gallon of fuel can contaminate 1 million gallons of water.

FEMA says the hundreds of federal tanks have not always been its responsibility. The Federal Communications Commission also has had oversight, although FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said the commission believed FEMA was responsible for monitoring and maintaining the tanks. FEMA said it spent $8 million in the 1990s removing and repairing some of them.

Southeast Missourian staff writer Rudi Keller contributed to this report.


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