I’ve been thinking about collecting what I’ve learned about the Illinois Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) incidents through the eyes of business development. I have a fresh set of eyes. I’ve never called on LUST projects before and I’m learning new things every day.
I’ve only heard bad things about the LUST program which was designed to set aside money as an insurance fund or “trust fund” to clean property of retail operations who sell petroleum products. In business development I get to pick to whom I sell. LUST looks like an amazing target market. It has money, politics, environmental consulting talent and regulatory agencies are all focused on solving the problem. Yet I’ve been told by our leadership; even though Illinois is the 3rd worst state in the nation for open LUST incidents, stay away from the program.
I want to know why.
I want my experience to be first-hand, not folklore.
Context For USTs
I probably don’t need to say it, but Leaking Underground Storage Tanks are bad for human health and the environment. Sixty percent of underground storage tanks have leaked. Those leaks get into ground water and travel sideways, sometimes finding themselves in the drinking water wells of the surrounding houses. The government has a very real interest in preventing LUST incidents from happening and cleaning them up when they do.
To accomplish this task they set up a LUST Trust Fund. It takes a few pennies from every gallon of gas you pump and puts it into a trust fund, which is administered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM). The LUST Trust Fund is used to pay to clean property where leaking underground tanks have been identified.
How Big Is The Problem?
Trying to be as fair as possible, it’s hard to define “how big” the problem is or even “what” the problem is. Defining the “how big” part starts with your attitude on pollution generally. From a morality standpoint, if you accept humans are the most important animal on the planet and we have a moral obligation to first protect humans, this problem is not big. Actual cases of contaminated drinking water for humans appear to be low. When the opposite is proven to be true, there are are a multitude of government agencies who get involved and problems are addressed quickly.
If you expand the definition of “Big Problem” to include impacts on the broader environment; rivers, lakes, aquatic life, wetlands, etc… the problem is bigger but not massive.
Saved By Geology
Illinois geology is comprised of tightly packed clay in many (but not all) instances. These clays were left over from the glaciers during the ice age. The nice thing about clay, liquid doesn’t move through it very well. When you leak petroleum around a tank cavity, it tends to stay right there. It should be noted, there’s plenty of sand in Illinois depending on where you are. There is also fractured limestone rock.
Helped by Chemistry
The good news about petroleum products is they float on water. In the environmental consulting biz we call this a Light Non Aqueous Phase Liquid (LNAPL). You may be wondering how this helps at all. Well, water provides a boundary to how far down contamination can go. Dry cleaning fluid on the other hand is a Dense Non Aqueous Phase Liquid (DNAPL) which sinks in water so once it goes, it keeps going down. It’s real bad stuff.
Assisted by Geography
Tank operators can be found where higher populations of people are. The higher the population, the more likely the population is inside city limits and drinking water is delivered as a city service from deep wells. It’s harder but not impossible to contaminate a city water supply. When a city connects a house to the public water supply, they force the residents to abandon their wells through the authority of the state and county health departments.
If you expand the definition of “Big Problem” to include the political aspects of it, the problem is bigger still, but it’s chronic and not acute. Chronic problems hurt all the time so the tendency is to forget about them. Acute problems hurt badly right now. We still remember a time when it didn’t hurt. We want badly to get back to the times of no-pain. We’re motivated to make the pain stop.
Broadly speaking, politics has a very solid mandate to regulate pollution and take steps to clean the environment. I believe the public generally believes pollution from industry is being managed and they believe government agencies are doing an adequate job. This is different than saying the government IS doing an adequate job. The public has very little avenues to know one way or the other. But nothing specific has caught the attention of the people through media. Out of sight, out of mind.
Industry Special Interests
Intuitively you’d expect commercial industry to be the villain here. The reality doesn’t match the tropes in Hollywood movies. The Leaking Underground Storage Tank fund is funded by a broad tax on all tank operators. There is no competitive advantage or disadvantage to the tax. It applies equally. It’s not a tax on the tank operator industry, but on the fuel purchasers, the general public. Fuel consumption is largely inelastic, people will pay whatever it costs to fill their cars. Additionally, and most importantly, the LUST fund tax can easily be seen as either a trust fund or an insurance policy where no private insurer would dare to step in. The state, as the insurer of last resort, is doing an enormous service for the tank operators by providing funds and arguably limiting liability from inevitable leaks.
Again, there’s not a lot of pain here. Leaking Underground Storage Tanks are a niche problem with no vocal constituency. Politicians focus on issues which either directly get people to vote for them, or directly get people to provide them with money for campaign expenses. This issue has neither. Don’t get me wrong, I think every politician is concerned about the cleanliness of the environment, but there are only so many hours in the day and the squeaky wheels are getting the grease.
I know it’s easy to forget, but we started this conversation about “how big is the UST problem”. We are currently discussing how big it is for the government agencies tasked with addressing the problem. Let’s begin with the easy ones.
Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM)
The OSFM is co-responsible for the LUST fund but their obligations revolve around the risks to fire or explosion from a leaking tank. The OSFM will call in a “release” which is essentially a spill. It will be recorded with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). The OSFM may issue a Red Tag, but then they are done with their obligations to the site.
United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)
This is going to be remedial for some of you but it’s necessary; the federal government has all kinds of power and authority but it is constitutionally checked by the power of the state government. Without debating the merits of federalism, the US EPA in my mind can be seen as my second grade homeroom teacher, an angry nun with a yard-stick to smack you with, and a scowl on her face. She’s plenty angry. She can inflict some pain, but it’s a yard-stick not a flame-thrower. Even so, I would say LUST is a major concern for both nuns and the US EPA.
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA)
I can only infer what is important to the IEPA from the data they collect. Until I have more conversations with them, anything more would be conjecture. Let’s look at the high level data summaries:
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 – 3907
- 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
- Total Open LUST Incidents for any reason – 5,544
Even so, I would say this is a major concern for the IEPA. They have a whole department dedicated to it. And yet as we can see from the database, they have open incidents from 1984.
I can’t say I’ve seen anything that tells me Leaking Underground Storage Tanks are a big problem for anyone in the State of Illinois, but should they be? I think yes. How can we have a whole agency division dedicated to LUST incidents and still have open cases from 1984?
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.