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Tanks for Nothing: The Decades-Long Failure to Protect the Public from Hazardous Chemical Spills

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December 2021


Throughout most of the U.S., the public is not protected from spills and other disasters involving storage of hazardous chemicals — including toxic and flammable substances — in aboveground tanks. For decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and most states have refused to act to protect the health and safety of workers and communities, as well as water and natural resources, from the threat of hazardous chemical tank fires, spills, and explosions.

The universe of these tanks — their quantity, location, contents, and conditions — and pollution involving these unregulated facilities are largely unknown to regulators and public because most regulators do not even require registration. Our analysis demonstrates that federal and state regulators have significantly underestimated the threat of unregulated tanks, while federal and state policymakers have ignored the promised benefits of comprehensive protections, like those that have been in place for decades for oil and waste tanks. Furthermore, tanks spills may exacerbate the cumulative effects of existing pollution and social stressors in communities near and downstream from these facilities.

In the absence of federal action, 10 states have established comprehensive programs that impose registration, inspection, and design and siting requirements to prevent releases from aboveground chemical storage facilities. Some of these state programs were enacted by lawmakers in response to catastrophic incidents, like a fatal explosion in Delaware or the Elk River leak in 2014 in West Virginia that contaminated drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Several years ago, Virginia studied the issue of unregulated chemical storage and found that aboveground storage tanks pose a threat to the safety of Virginians and their drinking water. At that time, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recommended action, but policymakers chose instead to wait on an EPA rule that never came.

RMP Facilities at Risk

Key Findings

To date, neither the federal government nor Virginia state agencies have attempted to estimate the full extent of and incidents related to aboveground chemical storage tanks nationwide or in the Commonwealth.

  • Using reports submitted by facilities regulated under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, EPA estimates that there are roughly 2,000 facilities in Virginia that could have been subject to the spill-prevention regulations that EPA ultimately refused to adopt. These facilities, however, only store large amounts of hazardous substances, and each facility may have multiple tanks.

  • Our analysis found that the number of unregulated aboveground chemical storage tanks in the Commonwealth may fall between 2,720 and 5,405.

  • Furthermore, our analysis of data from Virginia DEQ’s Pollution Response Program data found that between 2000 and 2020, there were more than 4,800 tank-related instances of spills, releases, improper storage, and illegal dumping, of which over 1,400 explicitly involved aboveground storage tanks. That amounts to an average of nearly 230 tank-related incidents in the Commonwealth each year. The number of reported incidents also appears to have increased over time, and the seven most impacted cities and counties are home to roughly a third of Virginians.
Key Recommendations

Virginia government: Virginia policymakers have long recognized the threat that unregulated chemical storage poses in the Commonwealth.

  • Like Delaware and West Virginia, Virginia should enact a comprehensive program that tracks tanks, prevents spills, and makes information available to emergency planners and the public.

  • State and local policymakers should also enact reforms to fire and building codes to complement a comprehensive environmental regulatory program.

  • To maximize protection from chemical disasters, policymakers should rely on lessons learned in other states and adopt measures to reduce reliance on the most toxic chemicals and put practices in place that effectively protect workers, communities, and natural resources.

Federal government: Enacting Clean Water Act rules for unregulated chemical storage facilities presents a significant opportunity to the Biden administration that will advance the president’s priorities and initiatives on environmental justice, racial equity, climate, and regulatory reform.

  • The Biden administration must reverse the Trump administration’s refusal to issue a comprehensive spill prevention rule for storage of hazardous substances.

  • Further, the Biden administration and EPA should prioritize development of comprehensive spill prevention and worst-case discharge planning rules required by Congress.

  • The Biden administration should ensure equitable public participation by affected communities and those disproportionately affected by chemical storage and other chemical hazards, in accordance with the president’s priorities on environmental justice, racial equity, and climate.

As several states have shown, protecting people and the environment from catastrophic chemical spills from aboveground storage tanks is possible. Virginia, 39 other states, and EPA can and should model their policies on what has already worked, and they must do so as soon as possible.

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