Water Boards Taking New Approach to Underground Fuel Tank Cleanups

February 1996

The California State Water Resources Control Board recently issued new guidance to the Regional Water Quality Control Boards and other local oversight agencies concerning cleanup of leaking underground fuel tanks. While stating that the new guidance was consistent with current policies and regulations, the Board noted that "it does represent a major departure from how we have viewed the threat from leaking USTs."

In brief, the Board suggests that all agencies overseeing leaking underground fuel tank cleanups should proceed aggressively to close low risk cases in which only soils are contaminated and to take a less active approach to cleaning up sites that pose a low risk to groundwater (e.g., by performing monitoring only). This new guidance is a result of a report issued last fall by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on improving the cleanup process for leaking underground fuel tanks. The report concluded that the threat from leaking USTs is not as severe as once thought and recommended passive bioremediation as the primary cleanup approach once the fuel leak source has been removed.

To date, the Regional Boards have gone to different lengths to issue their own guidance on underground tank cleanups. The San Francisco Bay Region has issued the most comprehensive guidance on defining low risk cases and how cleanups should proceed. All Regions are reviewing their underground fuel tank cases to determine what changes in approach they need to make. Other local oversight agencies should be doing the same. Companies that have not fully implemented a tank cleanup may wish to contact the oversight agency to determine whether changes in approach are appropriate. The new guidance may also impact cleanups of fuel from other sources and at least one Regional Board is reviewing those cases as well.

The new guidance also affects reimbursement from the California State Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund. Because the Fund reimburses only agency-approved actions, reimbursement is unlikely for cleanups that are more aggressive than required under the new guidance. In its latest Guidance Document, the Fund is alerting claimants of the new guidance and is also suggesting that claimants seek pre-approval of all costs.

Further changes to the cleanup process are expected as a result of a report soon to be issued by the SB 1764 Advisory Committee. This committee is examining the underground tank cleanup process with the goal of recommending improvements to it. Its recommendations may result in changes to State Water Board policies, including the draft "containment zone" policy, as well as potential legislative changes.