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The Clean Water Act turns 50 next year.

This landmark law has led to some great environmental successes — waterways that were once basically open sewers have been returned to their former scenic beauty, capable of supporting aquatic life and providing drinking water to millions of Americans.

It has also made possible countless water protection careers in public service and private industry, as well as many types of pollution control technologies.

In at least one area, though, public protections related to the Clean Water Act have not advanced at all — despite Congress’ 1972 mandate to the contrary.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of aboveground storage facilities containing hazardous chemicals — such as arsenic, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene — are not subject to state or federal rules designed to prevent and mitigate spills. These storage tanks sit along our industrialized waterfronts and at agricultural supply depots in our rural communities, threatening the health and safety of nearby residents, many of whom are low-income people of color.

The Clean Water Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue rules to ensure these tanks are secure, yet Democratic and Republican administrations alike have ignored and even flouted the law.

In the absence of public protections, workers, like the late Jeffrey Davis of Delaware, and entire metropolitan regions, like Charleston, West Virginia, have been subjected to painful death, lasting injury, and catastrophic contamination of drinking water. In response to these unequivocally preventable human and economic disasters, 10 states, including Delaware and West Virginia, have enacted comprehensive rules covering aboveground storage tanks (ASTs) — but 40 states and the EPA have not.

In groundbreaking new research released today, we demonstrate that EPA and state policymakers have significantly underestimated the risks and costs of unregulated ASTs. For the first time anywhere, our analysis also makes clear that AST risks are increasing due to climate change. As our case study of Virginia shows, the threat is especially great in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which are already overburdened by environmental pollution.

Shockingly High Risks in Virginia

Like in most states, state and federal regulators know little to nothing about ASTs in Virginia — their number, location, chemical contents, condition, or measures in place to prevent leaks, spills, or other incidents. During the Trump administration, the EPA estimated that some 2,000 ASTs in Virginia alone were unregulated but potentially subject to Clean Water Act rules the agency refused to issue.

In our new report — Tanks for Nothing: The Decades-long Failure to Protect the Public from Hazardous Chemical Spills — we show that there may be more than twice as many unregulated ASTs in Virginia than previously thought. Voluntary state spill reporting data show that AST spills have increased over the last 20 years, and at least 1,400 spills came from ASTs.

It’s not just the frequency of spills that is problematic; so too is the threat that unregulated hazardous chemical storage poses to the Commonwealth’s efforts to promote environmental justice and climate resiliency.

Our research shows that most AST spills are occurring in Virginia’s most populous cities and counties and, further, within communities of color and low-income communities. What’s more, AST spills have increased two- to eight-fold when hurricanes have hit Virginia. Sea levels are rising faster in coastal Virginia than anywhere else on the Eastern Seaboard, and federal scientists have determined that hurricanes will continue to grow in strength and frequency in the Commonwealth.

With this new research, we are calling on Virginia policymakers to adopt the recommendations that state environmental, public health, and emergency management agencies first made in 2016: Enact a registration and inventory program for ASTs and, with that information, adopt comprehensive spill prevention and response standards that have been established in Delaware, Florida, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other states.

EPA Regulations Are Required Now

EPA is decades past its deadline to issue rules for aboveground storage of hazardous substances. The best time to enact rigorous spill prevention and response rules for these tanks is today — not after the next worker’s death or grievous injury, nor after a chemical release contaminating the drinking water of thousands of Americans.

We’re calling on the EPA to finally issue the AST spill prevention and response rules Congress mandated a half century ago, and to do so in accordance with the Biden administration’s priorities for regulatory reform, environmental justice, racial equity, and climate action.

Join Our January Webinar

Join us Thursday, January 13, 2022, at 4 p.m. Eastern (1 p.m. Pacific) for a webinar about how unregulated toxic and hazardous chemical storage tanks threaten communities across the country.

Jared Knicley, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, will discuss how NRDC and its partners are working to establish federal rules to protect communities and waterways from spills and leaks of hazardous substances.

Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholar Noah Sachs, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, will discuss how states should take action to prevent chemical spills by enacting comprehensive storage tank regulations.

And Center for Progressive Reform Policy Analyst Darya Minovi will present her research from the Tanks for Nothing report and describe how EPA has underestimated the extent and environmental health threats from unregulated chemical storage nationally and in Virginia.

The webinar is free and open to all, but advance registration is required.

UPDATE: A recording of the webinar is now available.