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