This post is a continuing examination of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) program. In it, I seek to answer the question; “If IEPA is concerned about open LUST incidents, why do 38 year old open LUST incidents exist?”
If you didn’t come here with any context, you should start by reading Leaking Underground Storage Tanks; How Big Of A Problem Is It?
In that post we learned:
In Illinois, as of February 1, 2022
- Total Open LUST Incidents for any reason – 5,544
- Oldest open LUST – January 21, 1984
- Open Cases With “Free Product – 51 Liquid petroleum onsite, the worst-of-the-worst.
- Oldest Open “Free Product” – April 18, 1986
- Most Open LUST Incidents on Same Property – 17
- Oldest Open LUST with Multiple Open Incidents – January 21, 1984 (3 Open Incidents)
- Open LUST with No IEPA Project Manager Assigned – 1333
- Oldest Open LUST with No IEPA Project Manager Assigned – December 28, 1987
- With “NFR Not Recorded” – 6,382
- Open Leaking Gas Tanks – 39o7
- Open Leaking Diesel Tanks – 1390
- Open Leaking Fuel Oil – 302
- Open Leaking Jet Fuel – 29
- Open Leaking Used Oil – 470
- Open Leaking Non Petroleum – 160
- Open Leaking Other Oil – 757
I have not had enough of a dialog with IEPA to fully explore the answers to these questions. I plan to have more. Until I ask IEPA directly and get direct answers, I have to interpret whats important to them somehow.
Judging What is Important By the Records IEPA Keeps
The IEPA Leaking Underground Storage Database can be downloaded in its entirety by clicking through this link. What you get is a CSV file, a text based database which can be opened in any spreadsheet, most commonly Microsoft Excel. We use Microsoft Access because it’s more powerful. We can write queries against the database which return answers to the questions we write. That’s where we got the statistics at the top of this post.
The IEPA database changes daily. They add more records, they change existing records
We designed our database to bring in the IEPA database every Monday, update existing records and add the new ones. Our data reflects what is is really happening in the state in 52 discreet snapshots.
It is possible the state has other data which is not part of the download we get. I wouldn’t know. I do have some thoughts on the data we do have access to and it matters because it helps to define the question we asked in the first post about this, “How Big is the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Problem?”
No “Open / Closed” Field
There are 29,000 records in the LUST database and none of them specifically say they are open or closed. The only way to know if a LUST incident is open or closed is through interpretation. Because I’m not a mind reader, I can’t extrapolate with complete certainty which are which. I believe this leads to the potential for vast over counting or perhaps vast undercounting of open LUST incidents.
Why it matters
The state politicians oversee the IEPA. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) also oversees the IEPA and everyone is looking for everyone to meet their expectations. The first expectation is how do we all agree when a project is “Done”? Without a definitive field, we have no finality and we can’t get the triple check-off from the IEPA, USEPA and the politicians.
Why they have no Open / Closed Field
This is pure speculation. The easiest reason would be bad database design. The conspiratorial reason would be because Illinois can get money from the USEPA if they overstate the size of this issue. Alternatively, not having an open / closed field makes the statistics softer and easier to argue from anyone who could be make to look bad by them.
Underground Storage Tank Database Assumptions
To determine if a record is open or closed I make the following assumptions.
- NFR Date Field
- Pre 74 Date Field
- Heating Oil Date Field
- Non LUST Date Field
- Non LUST Letter Date Field
If all of these fields are empty, I can only assume the LUST incident is still open but even then, I can tell you with absolute certainty, this assumption is wrong.
Site Remediation Program (SRP) Route
When a tank is found and reported to the IEPA, it may be eligible for money to remediate the contamination through the LUST Fund. This is not always the case. Tanks which were not used in the retail operation of selling fuel are not eligible. They still get recorded in the database but if they get cleaned up at all, they go through the Site Remediation Program (SRP). A project receiving a No Further Remediation (NFR) letter through the SRP program will not necessarily report back to the LUST database they received the NFR. The record stays open. The totals are overstated.
There’s no field in the LUST database to inform the users a database entry went the SRP route. If you look at the column of data for the IEPA Project Manager name, you can see about 50 entries of “SRP” where the good staff at the IEPA tried to make a field do double duty to warn them the land owner opted out of the LUST program.
Bad UST Data
Databases that track people are notorious for being wrong in many ways. People move around, they die, it’s difficult. In addition, properties change hands, they get redeveloped, demolished, foreclosed, and re-parceled.
Incorrect Responsible Party Name, Address, Phone
When a LUST incident is called in by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, they can easily be wrong about who the “Responsible Party” (RP) is. A good example of this is an open case I saw last week where the Village of Wilmette was tagged as the responsible party for a tank which was discovered in the village right-of-way while public works crews were doing maintenance. Village attorneys were wise and sent a letter stating they were not the responsible party. The tank was removed, but the incident is still open and will never close. Someone in authority needs to call this record closed or the totals will be overstated.
In addition, the mailing address and phone numbers can be wrong but the names are correct. In this case, the IEPA can’t communicate with the RP and the cases get older and older.
Responsible Party Dead, Bankrupt, Property Sold
People die, go bankrupt, and sell their property. With it, they lose any interest or moral compunction to rectify their open LUST incident. These (ir)responsible parties either need to be found and made to clean their property, or they need to be written off in much the same way a loan is written off. Open LUST incidents nobody is ever going to address are a total loss to the IEPA but are overstating open cases in much the same way as non-performing loans overstate the assets of a bank.
Incorrect LUST Location Data
The actual location where the tank used to exist can be lost to the sands of time. People key in the wrong address on accident. Last week I had one site listed in the wrong county. These locations can never be closed, overstating the LUST count.
LUST Location Bankrupt, Bank Foreclosed, Tax Foreclosed, Sold, or Redeveloped
Saying the responsible party is irresponsible for the LUST incident lends itself to how they feel about it. The responsible party and the land itself are two different entities. Land changes hands, by choice, by necessity and sometimes by legal force. At this moment the responsible party stops caring even if they had the money to clean the property they no longer own in the first place, and especially if they do not.
These open incidents can become brownfields. They can also go the SRP route. Often they are ignored entirely and the site is redeveloped without regard to the open incident. These cases need to be closed or they will overstate LUST totals.
Responsible Party Apathy
You can’t really fault a RP for not caring about a property they sold, or was taken away from them even if the law still says they are technically responsible. Apathy appears to be the main cause for open LUST records which will never get closed.
There’s two main problems with the LUST database. The first is bad data because of circumstance. The second is from lack of leadership by the IEPA as to what is open and what is closed. The IEPA needs to decide which records will never get closed because the RP is long gone, or dead or the land is redeveloped and the issue is as good as closed.
If you think it’s a problem because there’s not enough budget, click here.
If you think it’s a problem because there’s not enough good data, click here.
If you think it’s a problem because there’s not enough good environmental consultants, click here.
If you think it’s a problem with Agency Attitude or State Law, click here.